The exception of “fiduciary capacity” is not a valid ground to deny the disclosure of degree certificates by universities, and failing to prove ‘motive’ or ‘purpose’ behind asking for any information is not a valid ground to deny that information, as rationalised by the high court.
LAST week, a single-judge bench of the Gujarat High Court comprising Justice Biren Vaishnav, deciding an appeal by the Gujarat University (GU), quashed an order of the Central Information Commissioner (CIC) which directed the Prime Minister’s Office to provide the specific number and year of the undergraduate and postgraduate degrees of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the Delhi University and the GU under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) so as to facilitate for the universities to search for and find out details of the education qualification documents of Modi.
The high court decision was based on the pretext that (i) the information held by the universities is in a “fiduciary capacity”, the disclosure of which is barred under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act unless larger public interest warrants such disclosure, and (ii) the “education qualification” of an individual is personal information, the disclosure of which is barred under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, unless it is warranted by a larger public interest.
Also read: How the Supreme Court’s flawed judgment in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande case has led to denial of information under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act
Below, I critically examine the high court’s judgment on two fronts: whether the exception of “fiduciary capacity” is a valid ground to deny the disclosure of degree certificates by the universities, and whether failing to prove ‘motive’ or ‘purpose’ behind asking for any information is a valid ground to deny that information, as rationalised by the high court.
Is an exception of “fiduciary capacity” a valid ground to deny the disclosure of degree certificates by universities?
Section 8 of the Act entails a list of exclusions that authorises public information officers (PIOs) to decline the disclosure of any information sought under the Act. Denial of information on the pretext of holding information in a fiduciary relationship is a commonly used exclusion by PIOs; therefore, it is important to understand the meaning and context of the term “fiduciary relationship”.
In Central Board of Secondary Education versus Aditya Bandopadhyay (2011), the Supreme Court explained the term “fiduciary” and “fiduciary relationship” by stating that the fiduciary is expected to act in confidence for the benefit and advantage of the beneficiary, as well as to act in good faith and fairness while interacting with the beneficiary or the beneficiary’s property. A fiduciary relationship suggests the superiority of one party over the other, where special trust has been placed in an individual to act in the best interests of another.
The reliance of the high court on Aditya Bandopadhyay is misplaced as nowhere in the judgment does the Supreme Court hold that educational documents are held in a fiduciary capacity.
Justice Vaishnav cited the Supreme Court’s decision in Central Public Information Officer, Supreme Court of India versus Subhash Chandra Agarwal (2019) to hold that there is no public interest in obtaining material that is already in the public domain. However, Justice Vaishnav’s reasoning is not at all supported by the Supreme Court’s judgement in this case, which was delivered by a Constitution Bench.
In the instant case, it was noted by the high court that the universities hold the degree certificate of Modi in a fiduciary capacity; thereby the disclosure of such information is barred under Section 8(1)(e). Interestingly, in Subhash Chandra Agrawal, the Supreme Court rejected the appellant’s (the Supreme Court Registry) contention that there exists a fiduciary relationship between the Chief Justice of India and puisne judges. Hence, if the GU’s contention is true that it held the information of the degree in a fiduciary capacity, why did it proactively disclose Modi’s degree on its website?
Also read: CJI office under RTI: In the garb of ‘public interest’ SC stymies citizens’ right to information
Additionally, while relying on Aditya Bandopadhyay, it was held by the high court that educational documents are held in a fiduciary capacity and therefore would be exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1)(e) of the RTI Act. However, the reliance of the high court on Aditya Bandopadhyay is misplaced as nowhere in the judgment does the Supreme Court hold that educational documents are held in a fiduciary capacity. In fact, in this case the Supreme Court had allowed the inspection of answer books by examinees on the ground that since answer books are not information available to an examining body in its fiduciary relationship, the exemption under Section 8(1)(e) is not available to the examining bodies.
Is failing to prove ‘motive’ or ‘purpose’ behind seeking information a valid ground to deny the information?
The high court concurred with the arguments averred by the Solicitor General of India Tushar Mehta that the educational qualifications of an individual bear a character of personal information which is barred from being disclosed under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, and it shall become disclosable only if it affects the larger public interest. However, it is important to note that the high court failed to acknowledge that the GU is a public body and the activity of awarding degrees is a public activity during convocation; therefore, all degree-related information should be available in the permanent register of the university, which is an accessible public document under Indian Evidence Act.
According to Section 6(2) of the RTI Act, an applicant who requests information is not needed to provide any reason for doing so. But Justice Vaishnav notes that if the information is already available in public domain, then it would be bereft of public interest, and therefore could be denied to be provided to an applicant under the RTI Act.
Subhash Chandra Agarwal stated that the motive and purpose for making a request for information is irrelevant and that being extraneous, it cannot be a justification for denying information.
Even after placing reliance on Subhash Chandra Agarwal, Justice Vaishnav failed to acknowledge the ratio of the judgment, according to which the goal and purpose of the specific exemption provided by clause (j) of Section 8(1) of the RTI Act is to safeguard individuals from unauthorised access to their personal information and to safeguard their reputation, honour, and other aspects of privacy. Subhash Chandra Agarwal explained the significance of Section 6(2) by stating that the motive and purpose for making a request for information is irrelevant and that being extraneous, it cannot be a justification for denying information.
Also read: Officials misusing Section 8 of RTI Act to deny information
Moreover, even if it is considered that the education qualification of an individual is “personal information”, in the instant case the disclosure of the educational qualification of the Prime Minister is warranted in public interest in light of the Supreme Court judgment in Mairembam Prithviraj verus Pukhrem Sharat Chandra Singh (2016), in which the court, while quashing the election of a Manipur legislator for falsely mentioning in his nomination paper that he had a Master of Business Administration degree, acknowledged the need of “public scrutiny” of information provided by candidates during elections while submitting their nomination papers in order to make citizens well-informed about the antecedents of the candidates, including their educational qualifications.
The scrutiny of the information provided by candidates would not be possible if such information, sought under the RTI Act, is denied on the pretext of it being personal information of the candidate not affecting the larger public interest.