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CAN THE WIFE SEEK DETAILS OF THE HUSBAND’S INCOME THROUGH RTI

INTRODUCTION

‘The Right to Information Act’ permits citizens of our country to obtain information regarding the working mechanism of the government and the agencies under its control. The ‘right to receive information’ is a fundamental right bestowed upon the citizens of India by ‘Article 19(1)(a)’– which deals with the right to Freedom of Speech and Expression and was originally recognized through the judgment of the Supreme Court which spoke that in this democratic fabric, citizens are rulers and as a result of this rank they are entitled to know about the working of the government[1].  Later on the ‘Right to Information Act’, 2005 was passed on similar guidelines which provide for an extensive framework through which individuals can request information from the government and its concerned offices. Any citizen who intends to obtain information under the custody of government agencies may do so by following the process outlined in the legislation. The essential question that arises here and must be addressed is what kind of agencies are constituted as government agencies or public agencies, and what type of information constitutes the notion of the information as enunciated in the said legislation. Additionally, the major question which must be addressed is whether or not personal income falls within the scope of the definition of information as mentioned in the act.

To address our queries, we will first analyze the definitions provided in the act to fully comprehend the intention of the legislature through this enactment. The act defines certain authorities as public authorities from which any citizen can receive information essential for the government’s functioning. These authorities are designated as ‘public authorities’[2] under the act which is further explicated to include such authorities, bodies, or institutions of self-government founded or shaped under the constitution of India or by any legislation promulgated by the parliament of India or the state assembly or by notification or an order issued by the competent authority, apart from that it also includes a body which is either owned, controlled and significantly funded, or any non-governmental organizations which are substantially funded either directly or indirectly by the revenues of the appropriate government, are also stipulated under this definition.”.  Additionally, the legislation elucidates that the information with any public authority which an individual wants to receive it, such receiving of information shall be enunciated as the right to receive the information. Thus, any information in the control of the public authority can be sought by an individual within the meaning of this act.

DOES PERSONAL INCOME COUNT AS INFORMATION UNDER THE RTI?

We will now consider whether the income comprises information and falls under the ‘RTI Act domain, provided that we have previously defined the generic meaning of the terms ‘Information’ and ‘Public Authorities’. An individual’s income as defined by the law relating to taxable income is further elucidated and is inclusive of the money that an individual receives in compensation for their work, services, or investments[3].

Individuals file Income Tax Returns to the Income Tax Department, which is a government authority governed by the Central Board of Direct Taxes (CBDT). The details of income tax returns filed with the Income Tax Department qualify as individual personal information rather than public information since paying taxes is a state obligation and access to such information constitutes an invasion of a person’s privacy. However, such information can be disclosed subject to certain conditions.

INFORMATION DISCLOSURE TO THE PERSON’S RIGHT TO PRIVACY: STATUTORY STANCE

As no right is absolute and is subject to limitations, the act under Section 8 cites the information that is prevented from being released, especially through its ‘proviso in Section 8(1)(j)’ which declares that any information of  ‘personal character bearing no significance either with the public activity or the interest and in furtherance causes unwanted invasion on individuals right to privacy then the public authority in these circumstances is not duty bound to disclose such personal information in the public domain. With an exception to these clauses, where the appropriate authorities believe that such information bears in it the element of greater public welfare then such information can be published. The statute has harmoniously laid down its stance as it strikes to balance people’s right to privacy with the right of others to receive information. Only in circumstances when it is necessary and in the interest of the public, the adjudicating authorities disclose the information sought under the framework outlined in the law. Once these provisions are discussed in light of the judicial pronouncements, the scenario will become clear.

RIGHT TO INFORMATION VS RIGHT TO PRIVACY: A WAY FORWARD THROUGH JUDICIAL PRONOUNCEMENTS

The provisions of Right to Information Act,2005[4] set out that information cannot be disclosed in the public domain as such disclosure will amount to encroachment upon an individual’s privacy. The provision mentioned above explicitly touches upon the individual’s right to privacy as an important facet of the act and prohibits disclosure of information that is personal and whose disclosure is nowhere in the interest of people at large and conclusively refrained from being exposed in the public domain. An individual’s income falls under the purview of the information under the act since such information is in the direct possession of a public authority which is herein the ‘Department of Income Tax’; but the statute itself safeguards this information by the principles of privacy and prohibits such revelation in the public domain unless the appropriate adjudicatory authority is of the contrary opinion.

The Hon’ble Supreme Court’s division bench constituting of Justice Deepak Mishra and Justice K.S Radhakrishna, has held that income tax returns filed by an individual constitute part of the personal information and are thereby exempted from being disclosed in the public domain unless the adjudicatory authorities form an opinion that the disclosure is in the interest of the public at large[5]. These findings of the Supreme Court do serve as a rule however deviation from this rule was seen in the verdicts of the various Hon’ble High Courts wherein the facts and circumstances of the cases were nuanced.  

In those conflicts wherein the right to receive information was used by the wives of individuals who yearned to know the details of the income of their husbands, the Hon’ble Delhi High Court whilst dealing with such disputes has held that  “in private disputes, arising between a husband and the wife, the protection which is afforded by the virtue of the exception to the provision cannot be disturbed unless and until it is pointed out that the information which is sought by the third party is in the interest of the public at large.”[6]

The Hon’ble High Court of Madhya Pradesh further opined that in cases where there exists a dispute between a husband and the wife, the court needs to ascertain this fact as the dispute is marital, the wife is entitled to know what sum her husband receives, the case in hand is deviating from the landmark case and therefore the rule laid down in past cannot be applied in this present case as the facts and circumstances differ[7].

It is determined that the personal income falls under the purview of the exception to Section 8 of the act and the wife can thus only receive the generic details of the taxable income to preserve her husband’s privacy.[8] We can summarise that the adjudicatory bodies have calculatedly pronounced the judgments keeping in mind the greater community interest with that of interpreting the provisions in the most appropriate and truthful sense.

CONCLUSION

The RTI Act was implemented by the legislature with the intent to provide citizens with information about their functioning. With the changing times, the Act is being used by individuals for their benefit and it would not be wrong to say that the legislature had foreseen this situation and had incorporated the provisions in advance where the breach of individuals’ privacy was suspected. The Apex court as well as the adjudicating authorities have interpreted the provisions of the statute in the truest sense and sought the welfare of the society as a whole. While dealing with cases where husband and wife are the parties to the dispute, estimating the maintenance becomes an essential part of such matrimonial proceedings because the quantum of maintenance shall decide how the wife will carry out her sustenance and livelihood of the family. Thus, a revelation of such information can serve a greater public interest, but the husband’s ‘Right to Privacy’ is an important component of ‘the Right to life’, therefore, disclosing the details of the generic income can satisfy the stakeholder’s expectations. As a result, we can conclude that Right to Information Act, 2005 and the judicial pronouncements have thus far endeavored to balance the competing interests of individual rights and the benefit of society as a whole.

Author(s) Name: Vidushi Mathur (Dr.DY Patil College of Law, Nerul)

References:

 [1] ‘Right to Information’ (Byjus) <https://byjus.com/free-ias-prep/right-to-information-rti/> accessed 27 December 2022

[2] Right to Information Act 2005, s 2(h)

[3]‘Section 224 of Income Tax Act’ (TaxGuru) <https://taxguru.in/income-tax/income-section-224-income-tax-act-   1961.html#:~:text=Income%20is%20the%20money%20an,or%20services%20throughout%20its%20operations> accessed 27 December 2022

[4]Right to Information Act 2005, s 8 (j)(1)

[5] Girish Ramchandra Deshpande v Central Information Commissioner &Others (2012) Special Leave Petition (Civil) No. 27734/2012

[6] Vijay Prakash v Union of India & Ors (2009) Writ Petition (Civil) 803/2009

[7] Smt. Sunita Jain v Pawan Kumar Jain &Ors.(2008) Appeal (Criminal)No. 174/2008

[8] Sanju Gupta v Chief Commissioner of Income Tax (2021) CIC/CCITL/A/2021/631675