A Single Judge Bench of the Delhi HC comprising of Justice Pratibha M. Singh held that the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) or PIOs cannot withhold information without reasonable cause.
The Court further said that such officers cannot function merely as “post offices” while dealing with information sought under the Right to Information (RTI) Act.
The government departments cannot be permitted to evade disclosure of information. A thorough search and enquiry must be conducted, in cases where the department is of an opinion that any information is not available or traceable.
In the present case, the Court was dealing with a petition filed by two CPIOs working with the Union Bank of India challenging an order dated 14.12.2020 passed by the Information Commissioner, Central Information Commission (CIC). According to the said order, a penalty of Rs. 10,000 each was imposed on the petitioners for providing an incomplete response to an Right To Information application.
Initially, the petitioners took the stand of exemption of information under sec. 8(1)(d) of the Act as being of “commercial confidence for the Bank”. However, the stand was later changed after the CIC sent them show cause notice wherein the petitioners claimed that the required documents were not traceable.
Observing the present facts, the Court held that:
“Such a change in stand would go on to show that there was an intention to withhold certain important documents or information, leading to the finding of mala fides and unreasonable conduct.”
The Court while considering the fact that both the officers were retired from the service of the Bank, reduced the penalty to Rs. 5,000 each to be payable within 6 weeks.
The Court observed the principles including:
1. CPIO/PIOs cannot withhold information without reasonable cause.
2. A PIO/CPIO cannot be held responsible if they have genuinely rejected the information sought on valid grounds permissible under the Act. Mere difference of opinion on the part of CIC cannot lead to an imposition of penalty under section 20 of the Right To Information Act.
3. Government departments ought not to be permitted to evade disclosure of information. Diligence has to be exercised by the said departments, by conducting a thorough search and enquiry, before concluding that the information is not available or traceable.
4. Every effort should be made to locate information, and the fear of disciplinary action would work as a deterrent against suppression of information for vested interests.
5. PIO/CPIO cannot function merely as “post offices” but instead are responsible to ensure that the information sought under the Right To Information Act is provided.
6. A PIO/CPIO has to apply their mind, analyze the material, and then direct disclosure or give reasons for non-disclosure. The PIO cannot rely upon subordinate officers.
7. Duty of compliance lies upon the PIO/CPIO. The exercise of power by the PIO/CPIO has to be with objectivity and seriousness the PIO/CPIO cannot be casual in their approach.
8. Information cannot be refused without reasonable cause.
The Court further held in the present case that, the responsibilities of CPIOs and other PIOs under sec. 5(3) of the Act which requires every officer to `render reasonable assistance’ to the persons seeking information.
“CPIOs or SPIOs can seek assistance from higher/other officials in the organization in order to enable them to furnish the information sought for the `proper discharge’ of their duties, as per Section 5(4). Such other officers from whom assistance may be sought would also be treated as CPIOs, under Section 5(5). CPIOs are thus expected to look into queries raised by the Applicants under the RTI Act, and fulfill an important responsibility while furnishing the said required information, in a fair, non-arbitrary and truthful manner. The organization, as a whole, also has to cooperate in the functioning of the CPIOs.”
Read the Judgment here: