Monday September 20, 2021

Does RTI law apply on courts?

According to the RTI laws in Punjab, Sindh and federal level, all the courts are accountable to citizens as they have been defined in the category of public bodies where from information can be summoned. Even defense establishment can be asked about the information regarding commercial subsidiaries, according to the federal RTI law.
September 04, 2019

ISLAMABAD: On April 10, a citizen wrote to the Supreme Court of Pakistan demanding information under Right of Access to Information Act 2017 commonly referred as Right to Information (RTI) law. He inquired about the sanctioned strength of the apex court’s staff, number of vacant positions, regular staff members and daily wagers. The applicant further asked if there is any quota for females, disables, transgender as is the case in other public bodies and how many of them have been appointed against the reserve seats.

Any public body as defined in RTI law is required to respond in 10 working days, extendable for another as many days. The SC has been covered in the definition of public bodies but no response was received. Mukhtar Ahmed Ali, the applicant, then filed a complaint before the appellant body, Pakistan Information Commission (PIC), against the non-provision of information.

A reply received from the SC registrar office on August 8 to PIC said that “Constitution doesn’t envisage oversight in any form/ manner by any other institution/ organ of the State on the functioning of the Courts.” This was a reference from a letter dated September 30, 2014, written to the law secretary who had referred questions asked to the highest court by members of Parliament. Article 2A of the Constitution was also referred in the letter that said the independence of judiciary shall be fully secured. “As regards of the working of the Superior Courts, the Constitution does not entrust such a function to any outside institution/ other organ of the State, rather leaves it to such Courts themselves…”. A judgment Government of Sindh v. Sharaf Faridi (PLD 1994 SC 105) was also referred in the letter to re-emphasise about the separation of judiciary from the executive branch.

When PIC shared the SC reply with the citizen-applicant, he decided to write a rejoinder to contest his right to know.

In it, he said the SC had referred to a five-year-old letter written to the Law Ministry on a separate issue and that his application has not received any attention which he filed as a citizen in exercise of his fundamental right of access to information guaranteed by Article 19-A of the Constitution and that his right has been further been solidified through Right of Access to Information Act 2017 passed by Parliament.

His rejoinder goes on: “The judiciary’s independence and separation from executive is certainly ensured by the Constitution but it doesn’t and shouldn’t be construed to mean that judiciary is not accountable and responsive to citizens of the country….The judiciary has and must enjoy high degree of independence in relation to its judicial functions but it can’t claim to be totally independent and sovereign, as it is very much part of the government that consists of executive, judiciary and legislature and it can’t shun public oversight especially when it comes to use of public funds and exercise of administrative authority in the context of judicial administration.”

The letter of registrar office, he added, doesn’t make a convincing answer for denying access to information to citizens of Pakistan in the light of logical reasoning or court judgments passed in the context of Article 19A of the Constitution or the Right of Access to Information Act 2017.

In the end, the citizen-applicant demanded of the PIC to ask the SC to immediately designate an officer to deal with information requests from public as required under section 9 of the RTI law, ensure proactive disclosure of information as required under Section 5 of the RTI law and provide information he has requested.

Earlier, somewhat similar issue was dealt in Punjab when an applicant’s request was not entertained by the Lahore High Court (LHC). A citizen had inquired about the salary of LHC chief justice along with the perks and privileges he enjoyed. As the matter went to Punjab Information Commission due to the refusal of information, the Commission directed the high court to make public requisite information and designate an officer to entertain the information requests submitted by citizens. The LHC subsequently complied with the order of the Commission. In yet another case, Lahore’s district court had shared information about the recruitments.

According to the RTI laws in Punjab, Sindh and federal level, all the courts are accountable to citizens as they have been defined in the category of public bodies where from information can be summoned. Even defense establishment can be asked about the information regarding commercial subsidiaries, according to the federal RTI law.