Epoch making event Supreme Court correcting the Course

By Ateev Mathur & Ajay Monga

Legal Era | 31st October 2022

Epoch making event- Supreme Court correcting the Course.

The Supreme Court not only realised and noted the difficulties arising from the judgment of Jayantilal N. Mistri, but even opened the doors for correction of error.

The Supreme Court of India recently while delivering the Judgment in the matter of HDFC Bank Ltd. & Anr. V Union of India, perhaps made us coin a new phrase i.e To err is human; to realise is, divine’. The occasion arose when the two-judge bench of the Supreme Court was dealing with the matter related to application of Right to information Act on private Banks through the Reserve Bank of India. People keeping an interest in the matters related to RTI are aware that under the regime of this Act, a person can seek information from Government institutions. The laudable object of the enactment is transparency in the working. Similarly, there exist provisions in the Reserve Bank of India Act and Banking Regulation Act which authorise the RBI to seek certain information from public and private sector Banks. However, it is always considered that the information available with the RBI is very confidential and is not to be shared with anyone..

The dispute arose when some activists sought information from RBI related to private Banks and their customers. It may be noted that private banks are per se not amenable to the ambit of the RTI Act, and thus attempt was made to seek information through the channel of RBI. When this issue first came up in the year 2015, the Supreme Court in the matter of Reserve Bank of India vs. Jayantilal N. Mistry did not agree with the contention of the RBI that the information sought by the Respondents could not be disclosed in view of its fiduciary relationship with the banks. It was further observed that RBI is not in any fiduciary relationship with the banks and that the RBI has a statutory duty to uphold the interest of the public at large, the depositors, the country’s economy and the banking sector. Thus it was opined that the RBI has to act with transparency and not hide information that might embarrass the banks and that it is duty-bound to comply with the provisions of the Act and disclose the information sought.

On the basis of the aforenoted Judgment, RBI had issued certain direction to the Bank interalia requiring these Banks to share the information which may be confidential or sensitive and exempted under section 8 of the RTI Act.

The contentious issue before the court was on the maintainability of the present proceedings in as much as the issue stands covered by the judgment of Jayantilal N. Mistry. It was however, the case for the petitioners that the right to privacy has been held to be an implicit fundamental right by a five-Judge bench judgment of the Supreme Court in the matter of the Supreme Court Advocates-on-Record Association case and was reiterated by a nine-judge Constitution bench in the matter of K.S. Puttaswamy and anr. vs Union of India and others. Thus, the Court was called upon to strike a balance between public interest and private interest. The provisions of Section 35 (5) of the Banking Regulation Act, which prescribes a specific procedure for submitting inspection reports were also not taken note of in the matter of the Jayantilal N. Mistri case.

In this backdrop of the factual and legal positioning, the Court held that “when a question of fact has reached finality inter se between the parties, it cannot be reopened in a collateral proceeding. However, it has been observed that an issue of law can be overruled later on.”

Commenting on the main merit of the matter, the court noted that though the RBI has issued directions in compliance of the Judgment in the matter of Jayantilal N. Mistri, such application may adversely affect the individual’s fundamental right to privacy. Therefore, in the event of conflict between two rights viz. Right to Information and Right to privacy, the court will have to strike a balance. The Supreme Court thus, without finally commenting, prima facie opined that the judgment in the matter of Jayantilal N. Mistri did not take into consideration the aspect of balancing the right to information and right to privacy. Thus, the Supreme Court not only realised and noted the difficulties arising from the judgment of Jayantilal N. Mistri, but has even opened the doors for correction of error.

In my opinion, this Judgment is going to be an epoch-making event in the coming times of administration of Justice.