Brief notes made by judges at administrative meetings exempt from disclosure under the RTI Act: Bombay Supreme Court

The Bombay High Court recently observed that case notes taken by judges during administrative/committee meetings are exempt from disclosure under the RTI Act.

A bench of Judges GS Patel and Madhav J Jamdar observed,

The retention of case notes is, in our view, entirely healthy. This is necessary for a better administration of justice. Actual material may be disclosed pursuant to an RTI investigation as well as with the final decision, but the notes in the filing are only transitional and tentative views and an exchange of views. These should in no way fall into the public domain or be the subject of any controversy.

The bench added,

The last thing that is desirable is litigation challenging the sincere opinions on an administrative matter of any judge. And, finally, this is essential: the administration of the High Court speaks with one voice. We leave this aspect of the matter at this stage.

The observation was made as part of a petition filed by the Satara District Bar Association against the establishment of an additional district judge’s court and a civil judge’s court in the town of Wai in Maharashtra.

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The Court dealt with a matter of disclosure of information following a motion by RTI. The petitioner has raised an RTI question. The public information officer responded to this question by providing some information and saying that the rest was exempt under section 8(e) of the RTI Act, being information protected from disclosure as it fell within the scope of the nature of a fiduciary relationship. It was clarified that all that had not been disclosed were the internal notes taken by the judges as members of the committee.

The bench accepted this explanation observing,

There is certainly an element of confidentiality in the notes of the judges of any panel of this Court. There is also a very good reason why such notes should in fact never be disclosed or allowed to be disclosed…There is a full and frank exchange of views; dissents, especially notorious dissents, are extremely rare. A judge who had previously endorsed findings to the contrary could, in the ensuing discussions with the other judges, reconsider his position.

However, he warned PIOs to be more specific in their responses when information is requested to be withheld as exempt from the disclosure requirements. Whether or not this exercise falls under the description of a “fiduciary relationship” is something that needs no further consideration, he said.

The Court explained that the common practice is that a submission from the Registry is submitted in turn to each of the judges of that particular committee. It is placed in order of seniority starting with the judge who is the youngest in terms of years of service on the bench. This is done consciously so that judges who receive the next papers in order have the benefit of seeing the comments and ratings previously made and then agreeing or raising any further points. Often, any judge on this list, regardless of their hierarchy, can request that the point be discussed in a meeting. This request is always accepted.

In any meeting, there is no question of a judge being senior or junior. At this stage, everyone has the same right to express their views. There is a full and frank exchange of views; dissents, especially notorious dissents, are extremely rare.

The bench noted that the system of first placing a submission before a “junior” judge does not and is not intended to indicate that any lesser weight is given to that opinion. These are internal processes for dealing with complex administrative issues. In Maharashtra, this is indeed particularly complex given the size of the judiciary and the fact that decision-making is not limited to cases only in the High Court.

Case Title: The Satara District Bar Association v. State Of Maharashtra and Ors.

Quote: 2022 LiveLaw (Bom) 109

Click here to read/download the judgment