RTI between spouses

RTI between spouses
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Highlights

RTI between spouses, Family as a unit cannot survive if the husband and wife differ and dispute. When marriage is on rocks, communication suffers and information is not exchanged.

Family as a unit cannot survive if the husband and wife differ and dispute. When marriage is on rocks, communication suffers and information is not exchanged. Without information the reconciliation or resolution will be impossible. Several times the estranged spouse seeks to know from the other several things which either to establish the allegation or innocence. More than this maintenance is the issue which demands knowledge of income, investments, assets and liabilities. The question is can law extend privacy between spouses or espouse exchange of monetary information? When right to information clashes with privacy of individual, the deciding factor is the public interest. If the family is fizzling out, justice demands decision on maintenance. Information is basic requirement. As the maintenance is part of life, this basic right covers the information too. The income information cannot remain within the walls of secrecy under the name of privacy.

Though the salary information of public servant is public information, his bank accounts, income tax returns, loans and deductions were held to be private and personal through judicial pronouncements and CIC verdicts. That remains the same except for married couples. When everything goes well, none claim privacy. As need to information arises in dispute, the fight for secrecy intensifies. The right to income-related-information has evolved from this context.

The Delhi High Court saw greater public interest in exchanging the information voluntarily between disputing spouses. It is not just right of wife to know the income details of husband. It is vice versa too. This RTI is also not confined to public servants. Though the RTI Act did not give RTI to spouses in private service, the Delhi High Court insisted filing of affidavits explaining several monetary details. On the jurisprudential basis of this landmark judgment, the RTI between spouses is extended to cover income, assets, investments, liability and status of spouses ‘voluntarily’.

In a significant second appeal I have held that right to information between spouses extends to information about income, investments and assets. It is pathetic story of Prashansa Sarma, who was allegedly starved, deserted and denied the maintenance. She sought to know details of husband’s property including that were given in dowry and action details for attempting to commit bigamy, etc. She questioned the way PIO washed-off hands on lame excuse of ‘sub judice’. She wanted to know why there was no inquiry against him for dowry demand, dual employment, domestic violence, making of her MMS while changing dress, etc. She questioned non-furnishing of annual property returns, not taking action for suppression of information about Hyundai car, Rs 50 lakh worth gold etc in his annual returns. The First Appellate Authority did not apply mind at all and simply rejected the appeal.

The Rule 5 of Central Civil Service (Conduct) Rules expects the Conduct of Government Servant in relation to the proper maintenance of his family. It has been held that neglect by a Government servant of his wife and family in a manner unbecoming of a Government servant may be regarded as a good and sufficient reason to justify action being taken against him under this rule. It is the legal right of spouse to claim maintenance. The rule says that department cannot make the employee to maintain his wife, but it does not mean that departmental action cannot be initiated against him for neglecting his wife and family as clearly stated under Para 2 of the above rule. Acceptance or demand of dowry by the public servant is misconduct. The CCS Rules do not allow a married Government employee to advertise for bride before divorce.

Section 4(1) (b) of RTI Act, imposed a mandate to disclose among other things the salary of the public servants. To that extent i.e., income as salary of public servant is not personal or private information. Spouse or any other person can ask for it. Some documents like IT Returns, pay-slip which explain deductions and loans were declared as personal or third party information.

In Kusum Sharma v. Mahinder Kumar Sharma (FAO 369/1996 decided on January 14, 2015), Delhi High Court directed both spouses to file affidavits about their income, assets and investments and listed out the documents to be attached including certain documents which were earlier held to be personal or third party information. The long list includes information about salary, income from business, earnings since marriage and income from other sources, assets like immovable and movable properties, investments including bank accounts, demat accounts, cash FDRs etc, stocks, LIC policy, gadgets, household appliances, gold and silver etc, liabilities like loans, details of expenditure and general information regarding standard of living and lifestyle and educational or professional qualification including details of occupation was no more personal between the spouses and each spouse should have right to access it.

This information about assets, income and investments of spouses is no more private or personal as against spouses. Though such information could be personal or private as against any person other than spouse, the proviso to Section 8(1) (j) read with Section 8(2) of the Right to Information Act entitled the appellant to get such information because of overwhelming public interest in securing the lives of deserted wives. The rules are:

a. The spouses have right to information between them.
b. The husband of appellant has a duty to provide all that information to his wife based on rights of marriage as per family law.
c. Certain documents like annual returns of assets, investments, IT returns etc are not private or personal or third party information, especially for maintenance purposes.
d. The PIOs cannot reject the spouse’s request for such information on the ground of Section 8(1) (j) saying it is personal information, because the protection of privacy is overridden by the huge public interest in maintaining wives. The larger public interest in maintenance of wives and children, prevention of domestic violence, etc., demands its disclosure.
e. The income-related-information becomes the life related information when wife is not being maintained, and that should be given within 48 hours according to proviso to Section 7(1) of RTI Act, 2005.
The PIO and the husband of the appellant were summoned to explain obstruction, delay and denial of information.

By: Madabhushi Sridhar

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