Public interest vs confidentiality

Public interest vs confidentiality
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Highlights

Public interest vs confidentiality. Surup Singh Naik was an MLA and Minister in Maharasthra, on whom the Supreme Court imposed one month imprisonment for contempt proceedings on May 10, 2006.

A convict or a person in remand cannot have right to privacy in medical matters furnished to seek admission in a hospital if adequate public interest is involved in the case. The public can seek to know under the RTI Act if the person was genuinely admitted on medical grounds or if he faked ill-health so as to avoid staying in jail. The Bombay High Court rightly ruled so, while dealing with the issue whether a person convicted for contempt of court or during the period of incarceration, can claim privilege or confidentially in respect of the medical records maintained by a public authority

TDP Revanth Reddy arrested by the ACB has sought that he be shifted to hospital, claiming health problems. Does a citizen have a right to know what is his heath problem?

Surup Singh Naik was an MLA and Minister in Maharasthra, on whom the Supreme Court imposed one month imprisonment for contempt proceedings on May 10, 2006. He surrendered to the police authorities in Mumbai and was taken in custody on May 12. Within two days, he was shifted to Sir J J Hospital, Mumbai, on account of suspected heart problems as well as low sugar and blood pressure. According to Surup Singh, he had undergone medical treatment at Sir J.J.

Hospital, Mumbai, for a period of 21 days and was discharged on June 5, 2006. The petitioner served the remaining tenure of his imprisonment till June 11, 2006, in jail and then he was released from custody on “completing the period of sentence.” The petitioner contended that he was suffering from various diseases such as diabetes, heart problem and also blood pressure from 1998 onwards and was admitted to hospital on various occasions on account of his health problems.

A private citizen filed a query under the RTI on May 27, 2006, seeking from the Public Information Officer of Sir J J Hospital, Byculla, Mumbai, the medical reports of Surup Singh. In his application, it was set out that it was in public interest to know why a convict was allowed to stay in an air-conditioned comfort of the hospital and there had been intensive questioning about this aspect in the media and the people’s mind.

He raised a legitimate doubt about the true reasons for a convict being accommodated in air- conditioned comfort of the hospital, thereby ensuring that the convict escaped the punishment imposed on him. The PIO wrote to the General Administration Department of the Maharashtra government seeking some clarifications on the RTI Act.

The GAD responded, saying that the RTI Act being a central law, clarification can be sought from the Center. The PIO asked Surup Singh to say whether information should be given. There was nothing on record to indicate whether the petitioner replied to the said letter. Later, he rejected the application on the ground that the same was not signed by the RTI applicant.

Surup Singh made a representation to the Respondent No. 2 as well as Respondent No. 3, stating that the disclosure of information would amount to invading his privacy. Surup’s advocate argued that medical records is confidential, considering the Indian Medical Council (Professional Conduct, Etiquette and Ethics) Regulations 2002 framed under the provisions of the Indian Medical Council Act, 1956.

As per the Regulation 2.2, this cannot be disclosed except when court required. Regulation 7.14 says a doctor shall not disclose the secrets of a patient that have been learnt in the exercise of his/her profession except where court asked for it. The Bombay High Court was dealing with the issue whether a person, convicted for contempt of court or during the period of incarceration, can claim privilege or confidentially in respect of the medical records maintained by a public authority.

The contention of the RTI applicant is that in the larger public interest, it was required that this information be disclosed, as persons in high office or high positions or the like, in order to avoid serving their term in jail/prison or orders of detention or remand to police custody or judicial remand, get themselves admitted into hospitals with the connivance of officials. The RTI applicant claimed that the public has a right to know as to whether such a person was genuinely admitted, or was admitted to avoid punishment/custody and thus defeat judicial orders. He pleaded that public’s right in such a case must prevail over the private interest of such third person.

The Supreme Court recognized the right to privacy as implicit right under the Article 21. Section 8(1)(j) provides that personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest, or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual, shall not be disclosed unless the Central Public Information Officer or the State Public Information Officer or the Appellate Authority is satisfied, that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information.

Regulations framed under the Indian Medical Council Act, to be read with Section 8(1)(J) of the Right to Information Act, mean that it is within the competence of the Public Information Officer concerned to disclose the information in larger public interest or where Parliament or State Legislature could not be denied the information. Convicts are not, by mere reason of the conviction, denuded of all the fundamental rights which they otherwise posses.

The Bombay High Court said that in such cases a discretion has been conferred on the Public Information Officer concerned to make available the information, if satisfied, that the larger public interest justifies the disclosure. It is only in rare and in exceptional cases and for good and valid reasons, recorded in writing, can the information may be denied.

The High Court further explained: “In the instant case considering that the petitioner was convicted for contempt and was sent to jail and thereafter spent larger part of his prison term in hospital, the right of a public to be informed would normally outweigh the right of the petitioner to hold on to his medical records.”

The Public Information Officer has to, before giving any information, provide an opportunity to the third party under Section 11. Section 19(2) which provides for an appeal against an order by a person aggrieved to disclose third party information. It is not mere procedural matter but a certain requirement to seek the views of third party before disclosing the information sought. Right of hearing is not an empty formality. On this principle of natural justice, the matter was remanded back to PIO.

Though no information was released under this RTI application, the ministers like Surup Singh Naik developed fear of RTI to hold their chest and complain so that they spend the jail term in ‘hospital’ with all comforts. It is a landmark order on RTI, establishing the principle that public interest prevails over privacy right. The Court has rightly rejected the petition of Revanth Reddy. Public has a right to know what diseases he claimed to have suffered.

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