The News International: PK: Wednesday, March 22, 2017.
With the enforcement of Right to Information (RTI) law in Punjab, citizens aware of their rights are not only filing requests to the government departments but also to the judiciary. Sirmed Ali, a law graduate, is one of them. He asked questions which were impossible just a few years ago.
In October last year, he filed an RTI application demanding information about the monthly salary and allowances drawn by the chief justice of the Lahore High Court (LHC). The answer is yet awaited.
Waseem Elahi, yet another applicant, requested information from the LHC about the security personnel deputed with the judges along with a breakup of deployment at their homes and offices in addition to the expenditures incurred under this head. Being a taxpayer, he argued, it is his right to know about the use of his money. No reply has been received to date.
Third applicant is Shehryar Ahmed who had applied for a vacant post in the LHC advertised in the newspapers.
The application process fee of Rs500 was also deposited. He was never informed about his status. His RTI application has asked about the number of candidates applied, the names of selectors, total amount collected as processing fee and then wondered why he has not been informed about the status of his application.
“Shouldn’t the candidates be informed regarding their application status as they have paid hefty amount of Rs500 for the processing of their applications while being unemployed/student or seekers of better opportunity,” reads his last question in the RTI application submitted in February this year. He has not received any answer.
All three applicants finally moved Punjab Information Commission against the non-provision of requested details from the LHC. In each case, the PIC sent letters to the highest court of the province seeking explanation for inordinate delay as Punjab’s RTI law requires the submission of information within 14 working days.
Since Sirmed’s is the oldest among three complaints filed against the LHC, the PIC has issued its verdict demanding the provision of information not later than April 4 this year.
In the judgment announced on March 20, the PIC has reminded the LHC that Punjab Transparency and Right to Information Law 2013 is equally applicable on judiciary and quoted precedent from India in furtherance of its argument. Delhi High Court in its judgment dated January 12, 2010 upheld an order of Central Information Commission of India whereby disclosure of information regarding asset declarations of Supreme Court judges had been directed.
“In this context, any inordinate delays or obstructions caused by the administration of the LHC are likely to be perceived as inconsistent with international best practice and harmful for the cause of transparency being pushed forward by the civil society through, inter alia, demands for robust implementation of right to information laws,” reads the PIC verdict available with The News.
“The Hon’ble LHC is the highest court of the largest province of our country with the mandate to administer justice and hold all other institutions to account in terms of their compliance to laws enacted by the legislature,” the PIC verdict pointed out. “It is, therefore, extremely important that it sets the highest standards of compliance with the Act and transparency in its administration, which others follow and get inspiration from,” the verdict continues.
Another point noted in the PIC verdict is the failing of the LHC in designating principal information officer who would deal with the RTI requests. “It is, however, disconcerting that the Hon’ble High Court hasn’t designated a PIO, although it should have been done within sixty days after the commencement of the Act on December 16, 2013, when it was published in the Punjab Gazette (Extraordinary). Similarly, neither the statutory requirement of proactive disclosure in terms section 4 of the Act has been implemented, nor is information being provided to citizens in response to their requests made u/s 10 of the Act,” the verdict reads.
“In the instant case (of Sirmed Ali), the requested information has been effectively denied, as the respondent has not decided yet the application of the complainant on its merits, despite several letters of the Commission. It may be noted here that each application for access to information should ordinarily be decided within 14 working days as per section 10(7) of the Act,” the verdict goes on.
Explaining the reason of delay in designating PIO, Jamal Ahmad, additional registrar of the LHC, conveyed to the PIC that PIO couldn’t be designated as it “has been pending decision of the Hon’ble Administration Committee of this court.”
The PIC verdict has re-emphasized that the nature of information requested (salary and allowances of judges) should have been rather displayed on the official website.
“As for the instant complaint is concerned, the requested information is of such a nature that it should have been proactively disclosed through the official website or other types of publications in accordance with section 4(g) of the Act. However, it has neither been proactively disclosed, nor the respondent has provided the same to the complainant even after a lapse of several months and despite the notices issued by the Commission. The response of the deputy registrar (HR-II) to the effect that the application of the complainant had not been received by the respondent amounts to rejection of information request on technical grounds, especially when copies of the application of the complainant were attached with the letters of the Commission addressed to the respondent and, in any case, the requested information is of the nature that it should have been proactively disclosed. Any office holder, who appreciates the importance of transparency and is working with a problem-solving approach, would focus on the substance of the matter, instead of delaying disclosure by relying upon technicalities,” the PIC judgment reads.