Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Govt pleaders can’t be hired by officials

Times of India: Chennai: Tuesday, July 11, 2017.
The state government has issued a directive barring Public Information Officers (PIO), designated by departments to answer Right to Information (RTI) applications, from engaging government counsel to defend them in cases where they appeal against penalties imposed on them by the Tamil Nadu Information Commission (TNIC) under Section 20 of the RTI Act.
The section pertains to penalising PIOs who have, without any reasonable cause, refused to receive an application or not furnished it within the specified time limits or denied information or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information.
The order, dated June 16 and issued by the Personnel and Administrative Reforms (P&AR) secretary P W C Davidar (in-charge), came after the TNIC raised some objections in a letter dated May 8. TNIC had imposed a Rs 25,000 penalty on the PIO in commercial taxes department in September 2015.
The officer filed a writ petition in the Madras high court, challenging the penalty. However, the special government pleader (taxes) was his counsel. The TNIC was not impressed and pointed out in the letter that government machinery was used to 'thwart an order of the commission.'
"TNIC feels that it is not fair or correct for government counsel to be party to challenge the orders of TNIC on behalf of a person penalised by TNIC," Davidar stated in the directive. The government has indicated that the PIO should engage a lawyer on his/her own cost, sources said.
"If the government pleader defends the PIO who has been penalised, in-effect it means that the government has taken a stand against its own commission. This is not correct," a senior government official said.
In the September 2015 TNIC order, the information commissioner had stated that the PIO of the commercial taxes department had utterly disregarded previous directives of the commission and given information to the appellant which was wholly unrelated to the information sought.
This was a case of knowingly giving incorrect, incomplete and misleading information, the order noted, imposing a penalty of Rs 25,000.
Though replying to the RTI application is part of official work, a PIO is sought to be penalised for not doing the official work, which is his personal act of omission, the official said.