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‘Public Authority’ & ‘Public Information Officer’ Under RTI Act, 2005: Jharkhand High Court Explains Difference

Team SoOLEGAL 7 Feb 2022 3:58pm

‘Public Authority’ & ‘Public Information Officer’ Under RTI Act, 2005: Jharkhand High Court Explains Difference

‘Public Authority’ & ‘Public Information Officer’ Under RTI Act, 2005: Jharkhand High Court Explains Difference

 

The Jharkhand High Court recently upheld the State Information Commission's order, holding that the State Information Commission has the authority to issue a compensation order under Section 19 (8) (b) of the Right to Information Act, 2005. Noting the distinction between Public Authority and Public Information Officer, Justice Sujit Narayan Prasad held that the RTI Act specifically distinguishes between the two, stating that the PIO is the designated officer designated by the Public Authority.

“Public Authority who is the custodian of the record and the designated Public Information Officer is required to provide information deriving from the custody of the Public Authority, and that is the reason the obligation has been cast upon the Public Authority as per the provision of Section 4 of the Act, 2005 to maintain all records,” he added.

The state of Jharkhand filed a writ petition challenging an order by the State Information Commission imposing a penalty of Rs. 60,000 under Section 19(8) of the Right to Information Act for failing to provide the information on time.

It is argues that the RTI Act’s provision for imposing a penalty can only be applied to the Public Information Officer, who can only be considered an erring official for failing to comply with a request made under Section 6 and 7 of the Right to Information Act, 2005.

Advocate Sanjoy Piprawal, appearing for the State Information Commission, contends that there was no error in imposing the penalty on the concerned department because Section 19(8) (b) of the 2005 Act refers to ‘Public Authorities’ on whom compensation can be imposed. He used the definition of Public Authority to argue that the State Health Department should be treated as a Public Authority, and thus a penalty can be imposed.

The Court considered the scope of the RTI Act of 2005, which established a practical regime for the right to information for citizens to secure access to information under the control of public authorities, as well as to promote transparency and accountability in the operations of all public authorities.

The Court read the Act’s definitions of ‘Information’ and ‘Public Authority’. It went on to say that,
“The ‘Public Authority’ has been defined which means any authority or body or institution of self – government established or constituted (a) by or under the constitution; (b) by any other law made by Parliament; (c) by any other law made by State Legislature; (d) by notification issued or order made by the appropriate government, and includes anybody owned, controlled or substantially financed, non – government organization substantially financed, directly or indirectly by funds provided by the appropriate government.”

Differentiating between ‘Public Authority’ & ‘Public Information Officer’
The court then looked into Section 19(8)(b), which requires the Public Authority to compensate the complaint for any loss or other harm he or she has suffered. It was discovered that the phase ‘Public Authority’ is to be investigated by examining the distinction between ‘Public Authority’ & ‘Public Information Officer’. It was observed,

“…because if the Public Authority and the Public Information Officer are treated to be the same as per the definition provided under the Act, 2005, then the issue about making the Public Information Officer liable for disbursement of compensation in favor of the information seeker will be said to be within jurisdiction but the consequence would be otherwise if the Public Authority will be different to that the Public Information officer.”

It is read in conjunction with the definition of a Public Authority under Section 2(h) of the Act, as well as Sections 4 and 5, to note that the Public Authority is said to be the authority if it is established or constituted by the enforcement of the law or under the Constitution. In other words, if a Public Authority is found to be a State within the meaning of Article 12 of the Indian Constitution, it is referred to as a Public Authority.

The Public Information Officer, on the other hand, is the officer designated by the Public Authority to act.

The Court also noted that the Act requires the Public Information Officer to obtain information from the custody of the Public Authority if approached by an information seeker. Following that, if permissible, it would be provided to the information seeker in question. It was stated,

“Therefore, the object of the Act, 2005 is casting obligation upon the Public Authority who is the authority constituted either under the Constitution or any enforcement of law either by the Parliament or by the State Legislature or anybody owned or financially aided by the state government.”

The Court determined that there was a distinct difference between the Public Authority and the Public Information Officer. Sections 19(8)(b) and 20 of the Act specify the consequences in the event of a non-supply or inadequate supply of information sought by the Information Commission; thus, the Act includes both compensation and a penalty.

The Court noted that, after addressing the issue of the distinction between the Public Authority and the Public Information Officer, the part of the order of liability for compensation is to be imposed on the Public Authority in order to compensate the complainant.

Power to impose Penalty under Section 20 of the Right to Information Act, 2005:
It was also stated that the purpose of the Act is to compensate the complainant by the Public Authority because it is the Public Authority's responsibility to keep the document in safe custody. If the document is not found, the public authority is obligated to pay the compensation. Simultaneously, the State Public Information Officer, the Public Authority's designated officer, has been assigned some responsibility/accountability for providing the information sought by the information seeker. If there is any negligence in the discharge of the aforementioned duty, Section 20 provides for the imposition of a penalty as a recommendation to the initiated departmental proceeding (2). It was observed,

“The Provision of Section 20(1) provides that if the Information Commission will come to a conclusion that the information seeker has malafidely denied the request for information or knowingly given incorrect, incomplete or misleading information or destroyed information which was the subject of the request or obstructed in any manner in furnishing the information, it shall impose a penalty of two hundred and fifty rupees each day till the application is received or information is furnished, so however, the total amount of such penalty shall not exceed twenty – five thousand rupees. Provided that the Public Information Officer shall be given a reasonable opportunity of being heard before any penalty is imposed on him.”

The Court observed that the penalty provision in Section 20 was inserted as a deterrent provision, so that if the purpose and object of the Act are violated, the penalty is to be imposed on the concerned Public Information Officer of the Central or State Government, as the case may be. However, prior to that, an opportunity for a hearing must be provided.



Tagged: Jharkhand High Court   Public Authority   Public Indormation officer   RTI Act 2005   Right to Information Act 2005     
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