The Right to Information Act, 2005 and the Doctrine of Res Judicata

The Right to Information Act, 2005 and the Doctrine of Res Judicata

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The Right to Information Act, 2005 is a beneficial piece of legislation which statutorily recognises the fact that the ‘right to information’ is an integral part of the fundamental right to freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Constitution of India, 1950 to the citizens of the country.[1] The purpose of the Right to Information Act, 2005 is to promote transparency and accountability in the working of every public authority and to contain corruption.[2]

It is necessary to appreciate that, although, every right is in the nature of a legally protected interest[3], but, there has to be a balance and proportionality between rights and restrictions on one hand, and rights and duties, on the other. It will create an imbalance, if undue or disproportionate emphasis is placed upon the rights of the citizens without considering the significance of the correlative duties. The true source of right is duty.[4] The duty, that, the Right to Information Act, 2005 entails upon the citizens of the country is to not to convert the Right to Information Act, 2005 into a litigation tool. 

In the case of, Pradeep S. Ahluwalia v. Delhi Tourism & Transportation Development Corporation[5], the Central Information Commission (New Delhi) took occasion to observe that, there is a practice adopted by some RTI applicants, whereby they file photocopies of RTI requests with the same public authorities time and again seeking information, irrespective of the fact that the previous application reached the second appellate level and the information was furnished or was refused regards being had to the wisdom of the authorities. Failing to appreciate that when the matter was not taken to the High Court for judicial review, the matter assumed finality and cannot thereafter be re-agitated with the Public Information Officer, the cantankerous RTI applicants keep filing repeatedly the RTI applications trying to take the public authorities for a ride. The Learned Commission further observed that, although the Right to Information Act, 2005 does not contain any specific provision that bars the re-asking of information from the concerned public authority, but, public policy demands that principle akin to Section 11 of the Code of Civil Procedure, 1908 be read into the Right to Information Act, 2005, to make the overall scheme of the 2005 Act more effective and superfluous.

The opinion expressed by the Learned Commission has force and the same can be elucidated by taking into account the following stream of reasons:

  1. If the Public Information Officers, First Appellate Authorities and the Commissions allow repeated RTI applications, then, there will be no end to the ‘information litigation’ and the public authorities will be at the receiving end for no fault of theirs.
  2. Public policy demands that: ‘it is in the interest of the State that there should be an end to litigation’ and ‘no man should be taxed twice over for the same cause’.
  3. It is implicit from the scheme and the provisions of the Right to Information Act, 2005 that every citizen has a right to obtain information from a concerned public authority, but, only once and not interminably.
  4. Repeated filing of RTI applications, by chronic information-seekers, has the effect of clogging the public offices by obstructing the free flow of information to the deserving and genuine RTI applicants, besides preventing the officers of the concerned public authority from performing the duties attached to their office.
  5. The decision of the Learned Commission is in line with the following dictum of the Supreme Court of India: Bombay Gas Co. Jagannath Pandurang[6]. In this case, the Apex Court, speaking through, A. Alagiriswami, J., held that, the doctrine of res judicata is a wholesome one which is applicable not merely to matters governed by the provisions of the Civil Procedure Code, 1908 but to all litigations.
  6. Previously also, the Learned Commission in the matter of, Prem Prakash Kumar NFL, Panipat[7], took occasion to observe that, sometimes the nature of queries and information sought by the applicants are such that it is evident on the face of the record that, the applicant will never be satisfied with the information received, because the endeavour is to promote self-interest rather than public interest, and to fight with the public authority tooth and nail without just cause. More often than not, such information-seekers are usually the disgruntled expelled employees of the public authorities. Further, in the case of, Shri Gopal Soni v. The New India Assurance Company Ltd.[8], the Commission was compelled to observe that, when sometimes employees of a public authority get suspended for insubordination and misconduct, then, as a matter of revenge these employees fire a spate of RTI applications, asking for voluminous records which is to be gathered, collected and collated from different wings of the concerned public authority, resulting in diversion of resources of the public authority and imposing on the public authority a heavy cost. The Commission observed that in cases of vague RTI applications, it is incumbent upon the public authority to invoke Section 7(9) of the Right to Information Act, 2005, which states that, ‘an information shall ordinarily be provided in the form in which it is sought unless it would disproportionately divert the resources of the public authority or would be detrimental to the safety or preservation of the record in question’.  

The Learned Commission in Pradeep S. Ahluwalia (Supra) went a step further to state that, the doctrine of constructive res judicata is applicable to the Right to Information Act, 2005 with full force and vehemence; meaning thereby, that when an applicant wants to avail an opportunity of obtaining information on a particular subject, he is expected to seek all the related information from the concerned public authority in that given opportunity itself, and he cannot file another RTI application for a bit/piece of information which he forgot to ask. The gravamen is this: ‘an individual should ask all possible aspects of information about a subject-matter, once and for all’.

Observations made by the Learned Commission apropos the applicability of the doctrine of constructive res judicata to the Right to Information Act, 2005 seems to be well-founded, regards may be had to the fact that, on many occasions applicants seek information from one-wing of the public authority and based on the information received, they file a slew of RTI applications against the other wing of the public authority, as if the RTI applicant is legally entitled to cross-examine the public authority under the aegis of the Act. In other cases, a series of RTI applications are filed against one wing of the public authority and on receipt of the information asked for, another set of RTI applications are filed against the other wing of the public authority to confirm the information previously received, by slightly altering/modifying the previously asked questions. Such practices are derogatory of the spirit and the legislative intent of the Right to Information Act, 2005.

However, the moot question is this: Can the reading of the Doctrine of Res Judicata and Constructive Res Judicata into the Right to Information Act, 2005 stop the cantankerous information-seekers from achieving their bleak ends?

The answer will be in the ‘negative’, for a simple reason that, the Right to Information Act, 2005 enables every citizen to seek information (which is not otherwise exempt) from a public authority and the reason for seeking the information has no bearing; all that is required is that, the information seeker must be an Indian citizen, and the information sought is not exempt from disclosure under the Act. Thus, any chronic information-seeker to harass any public authority can ask the same set of questions with/without modification again and again, repetitively, if not by self then through his colleagues, friends or relatives who are ready and willing to aid/complement him in his dreary objectives. By doing this, the chronic information-seeker will achieve his objective of harassing the public authority on one hand and on the other hand, he will be triumphal in circumventing the clutches of the Doctrine of Res Judicata and Constructive Res Judicata. Requirement of locus standi is exempt as regards the Right to Information Act, 2005.[9]

Possible solution: The Central/State Public Information Officer of any concerned public authority on perceiving that a particular information-seeker is acting cantankerously, he can direct the public authority to once and for all, publish all the queries asked for by the applicant on the official website of the concerned public authority, for, it is settled that the information which is in public domain cannot be asked for vide the RTI route, and for all future queries albeit the same or slightly modified/altered information reference can be made by the Central/State Public Information Officer to the specific link available on the official website of the concerned public authority. In the case of Sh. K. Lall v. Sh. M.K. Bagri, Assistant Registrar of Companies & CPIO[10], the Learned Commission observed that, once certain information is placed in public domain and is accessible to the citizens either freely or against payment of a pre-determined price, then that information cannot be said to be ‘held’ or ‘under the control’ of the public authority and would thus, cease to be an ‘information’ accessible under the Right to Information Act, 2005.

Excursus: It is a known fact that the Right to Information Act, 2005 is sans any provision which, specifically or otherwise, provides for penalising an information-seeker, who abuses the right to information by clogging the public office with repetitive queries of same or slightly modified footing. A well perceived legislative action on this score can prove to be of great value. It cannot be forgotten, that, the public authorities and so also the Hon’ble Commissions adjudicating the matters in the realm of the 2005 Act function on the money of the State exchequer i.e. taxpayers’ money, thus, right to information must be exercised to contain corruption and to promote transparency and accountability and should not be used as a litigation tool. Informed citizenry is an acid test of any democracy, but when the citizens of a democratic polity think only of the rights conferred onto them, blindfolded to the ensuing correlative duties, then, the system is bound to crumble under the burden of its own insensitivity.

 

 

[1] See: Supreme Court of India v. Subhash Chandra Agrawal, (2011) 1 SCC 496

[2] See: C.B.S.E. v. Aditya Bandopadhyay, (2011) 8 SCC 497 (Para 59)

[3] See: Mithilesh Kumari v. Prem Behari Khare, (1989) 2 SCC 95 (Para 22)

[4] See: Ramlila Maidan Incident, In re, (2012) 5 SCC 1 (Para 39)

[5] CIC/AD/A/2013/001046-SA, Date of Decision: 20.06.2014

[6] (1975) 4 SCC 690 (Para 11)

[7] Decision No. 246/IC/(A)/2006; F.No. CIC/MA/A/2006/00374 & 375; Date of Decision: 28.08.2006

[8] F. No. CIC/AT/A2008/00097, 000116, 000124; Date of Decision: 12.06.2008

[9] Section 6 of the Right to Information Act, 2005, deals with the ‘Request for obtaining information’. Section 6(2) categorically states as follows: ‘An applicant making request for information shall not be required to give any reason for requesting the information or any other personal details except those that may be necessary for contacting him’.

[10] F. No. CIC/AT/A/2007/00112

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