Spouses are not entitled to seek information regarding each other’s bank details & ITR through RTI Act

Information pertaining the income tax returns of any person falls under the category of ‘personal information’ which stands exempted from disclosure under Section 8(1) of the RTI Act, unless this information involves a larger public interest and the relevant authority is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.

The conflict  between  the right  to  personal  privacy  and  public  interest  in  the  disclosure  of personal information is  recognized by the legislature by incorporating Section 8(1)(j) of the  Right to Information Act (RTI Act). Personal  information  including  tax  returns,  medical  records  etc. cannot  be  disclosed  unless  the  bar  against  disclosure  is  lifted  by establishing  sufficient  public  interest  in  disclosure  and  disclosure even  then  can  be  made  only  after  duly  notifying  the  third  party  and after considering their views.

The Central Information Commission (CIC) in the case of ‘Pawan Kumar Saluja v. CPIO’ held that the details disclosed by a person in their income tax returns are ‘personal  information’ which  stand  exempted  from  disclosure under  clause  (j)  of  Section  8(1) of the RTI  Act
Background to the case:

The appellant in the case had filed an application under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) before the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) requesting for the following information:
  • Name and branch address of all the banks where his wife had account at any point of time, during the financial years 2012-2013 to 2017-2018;
  • The date of opening and closure of her bank accounts, if any;
  • If the account would be functional till the date of disposal of the application he had made?
  • If there were any income tax slabs, for all the categories i.e. males, females, senior  citizens  etc. during the financial years 2012-2013 to 2017-2018, for assessment of income tax on the annual income of any resident Indian individual? 
After this application was not properly entertained, the appellant filed a second appeal  under Section  19(3)  of  the  RTI Act before the Central Information Commission requesting  to  take  appropriate  legal  action  against  the  CPIO under Section 20 of the RTI Act and also to direct them to provide the relevant information he has requested.

Contentions Raised by the arties:

The  appellant contended  that he is seeking information  about  his  legally wedded  wife,  and  therefore,  the  CPIO  should  have invoked  Section 11 of  the  RTI  Act. He claimed that the information regarding her bank details and income tax returns should be disclosed.

The respondent on the other hand submitted that the appellant was seeking clarification with regard to the bank details and income tax returns of his wife, which is personal in nature and therefore, they had to claim exemption under Section 8(1) (j) of the RTI Act. They also submitted that Section 11 of the RTI  Act, can  only  be  invoked  if  the  CPIO  intends  to  disclose  the  personal information and therefore, once the CPIO is satisfied that the information is to be denied under Section 8(1)(j) of the RTI Act, Section 11 is not required to be invoked.  Moreover, no larger public interest was involved in the application filed and hence, the CPIO did not intend to disclose this information.

Findings of the Central Information Commission on the Issues raised:

Under Section 11 of the RTI, where a Public Information Officer (PIO) intends to disclose information which relates to or has to be supplied by a third party and has been treated as confidential by that third party, the PIO must, within 5 days of receiving the request, contact the third party and invite them to make a written or oral submission regarding whether the information should be disclosed. The third party then has 10 days within which they can make their submission.

In the present case, the CPIO did not find any merit in disclosure and accordingly, Section 11 was not invoked. With regards to the applicability of Section 8(1) (j) of RTI Act for non-disclosure of the third party bank details and income tax returns, the CIC referred to the Supreme Court’s judgment in Girish Ramchandra Deshpande v. Central Information Commission. The Court had held that if the information which is sought falls under the expression "personal information", and the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or public interest, it will be violative of the privacy of the person in question. The disclosure of such information may cause unwarranted invasion of privacy of that individual. However, if in such cases the CPIO or the PIO of the Appellate Authority is satisfied that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information, appropriate orders could be passed but the petitioner cannot claim those details as a matter of right.

Information pertaining the income tax returns of any person falls under the category of  ‘personal  information’ which stands exempted  from  disclosure under clause (j) of Section  8(1) of the RTI  Act, unless  this information involves a larger public interest and the relevant authority is satisfied  that  the  larger  public  interest  justifies the  disclosure of such information

Now the main issue which the Commission had to decide on was whether an appellant is entitled to seek information regarding their spouse’s bank details and their income tax returns?

The Commission relied on New Delhi High Court’s decision in Vijay Prakash v. UOI where it has been clarified that in a private dispute between husband and wife, the basic protection afforded by virtue of the exemption from disclosure enacted under Section 8(1) (j) of the RTI Act cannot be lifted or disturbed unless the applicant is able to justify how such disclosure would be in ‘public interest’. If the applicant fails to establish ‘public interest’ in the application made, such application would fail.

Since  filing  of  the  Income  Tax  Returns  by  an  individual  with  the  Income Tax   Department   is   not   a   public   activity   and   rather it   is   in   the   nature   of an obligation  which  a  citizen  owes  to  the  State  to  pay  his  taxes,  this information cannot be disclosed to the appellant in the absence of any larger public interest.

The Commission also relied on the legal principle enunciated in the judgment rendered by the Bombay High Court in Shailesh Gandhi v.  The  Central  Information Commission,  wherein,  it has been observed that Income Tax Returns cannot  be  said  to  be  a  public  activity. On the other hand, it is an obligation which a citizen owes to the State viz. to pay his taxes and since the said  information  is  held  by  the  Income  Tax  Department  in  a fiduciary  capacity,  the  same  cannot  be  directed  to be  revealed unless the pre-requisites for the same are satisfied.

The  act  of  filing returns  with  the  department  cannot  be  construed  as public  activity. The  expression  ‘public  activity’  would  mean  activities  of  a  public nature  and  not  necessarily  act  done  in  compliance  of  a  statute.  The expression ‘public activity’ would denote activity done for the public and/or in some manner available for participation by public or some section of public.  There  is  no  public  activity  involved  in  filing  a return  or  an  individual  pursuing  their  assessment  with  the  income  tax authorities. 
 
The Commission finally discussed the meaning of ‘third party’ as prescribed under Section 2(n) of the RTI Act, to be a person other than the citizen making a request for information and includes a public authority. From the words circumscribed under Section 2(n) of the RTI Act, it is vividly   clear   that   any   person   other   than   the   citizen   making   a   request   for information can be termed as ‘third party’. Therefore, the wife of the appellant being  a  person  other  than  the  RTI  applicant  surely comes  within  the  definition  of ‘third party’. Moreover, the CPIO has also not intended to disclose the information and  has  rather  pleaded  that  there  is  no  public  interest  in  the  matter.  The Commission did not find any public interest in the application made and held that the information sought by the appellant would cause harm upon its disclosure.

Conclusion:

Right to privacy is considered to be a ‘sacrosanct’ facet of Article 21 of the Constitution of India.  When any personal information sought has no nexus with any public activity or interest, the same is not to be provided under the RTI Act. If the information sought by an applicant in a case has no relationship with any public activity or interest, then such information must be denied rather than causing an invasion in the private life of another person.