[Editorial Note: Justice is an indivisible concept. We cannot, therefore, discuss contemporary Supreme Court judgments without also acknowledging the Court’s failure – at an institutional level – to do justice in the case involving sexual harassment allegations against the Chief Justice. This editorial caveat will remain in place for all future posts on this blog dealing with the Supreme Court, until there is a material change in circumstances.]

Elsewhere, I have analysed the recent judgment of the Supreme Court, holding that the Right to Information Act applies to information held by the Office of the Chief Justice of India. In this post, I want to briefly flag an issue that cropped up in each of the three opinions in the case: applying the doctrine of proportionality to a case of balancing rights.

Recall that the Majority Opinion holds that under Sections 8 and 11, the right to privacy must be “balanced” against the “public interest” in disclosure. In paragraph 88, the Court observes that this balance is achieved through an application of the proportionality standard, drawn from Puttaswamy. The Majority Opinion applies the proportionality standard to highlight – for example – the “nature and type” of information as relevant indicative factors for the Public Information Officer to consider when deciding whether or not to provide the information. In his Concurring Opinion, Ramana J does something similar, noting that “the contextual balancing involves ‘proportionality test’. [See K S Puttaswamy v. Union of India, (2017) 10 SCC 1]. The test is to see whether the release of information would be necessary, depends on the information seeker showing the ‘pressing social need’ or ‘compelling requirement for upholding the democratic values’.” (paragraph 41)

There is, however, a slight problem with this form of analysis. The proportionality standard in the context of privacy violations, as developed in Puttaswamy, is applicable against the State. It consists of a four-pronged test that is applies to decide whether rights-infringing State action is constitutionally valid or not. The “balancing” in this case, however, is not between State goals and the right to privacy. Rather, it is between two rights: the right to privacy and the right to information (which, in social terms, becomes the “public interest” in disclosure of information).

The proportionality standard sits uneasily with the second situation. To see why, consider for example the “necessity” prong of the test. Necessity requires that the infringing law be the “least restrictive” alternative; in other words, the infringement of rights must be to the least degree that is consistent with achieving the State’s goals. That makes perfect sense when you are considering State action; however, how do you apply that when you have to balance two rights against each other? Both the parties in this case have normative claims against each other, founded in rights. So you cannot simply ask, for example, is this claim to information the “least” amount that can be asked for in order to satisfy the claimant’s purpose? Consequently, without a clearer anchor, the invocation of the proportionality standard in the Majority Opinion and in Ramana J.’s concurrence, can end up becoming a shield for arbitrary and ad hoc “balancing of interests” by Public Information Officers.

The issue is addressed to an extent in the concurring opinion of Chandrachud J. In paragraph 89, he observes that:

It is also crucial for the standard of proportionality to be applied to ensure that neither right is restricted to a greater extent than necessary to fulfil the legitimate interest of the countervailing interest in question.

Chandrachud J. provides greater clarity in paragraph 111, where he quotes the opinion of Baroness Hale in Campbell v MGN LtdIn that case, Baroness Hale noted that:

The application of the proportionality test is more straightforward when only one Convention right is in play: the question then is whether the private right claimed offers sufficient justification for the degree of interference with the fundamental right. It is much less straightforward when two Convention rights are in play, and the proportionality of interfering with one has to be balanced against the proportionality of restricting the other. As each is a fundamental right, there is evidently a ―pressing social need to protect it … this involves looking first at the comparative importance of the actual rights being claimed in the individual case; then at the justifications for interfering with or restricting each of those rights; and applying the proportionality test to each.

Chandrachud J. interprets this to mean:

As observed by Baroness Hale, both the right to privacy and the right to information are legitimate aims. In applying the principle of proportionality, the Information Officer must ensure that the abridgement of a right is not disproportionate to the legitimate aim sought to be achieved by enforcing the countervailing right. (paragraph 112)

In practice, therefore, this would appear to be a two-step test. First, you apply a proportionality analysis to the question of the infringement of privacy occasioned by the demand for information. You identify the policy underlying the latter, treat that as the “legitimate aim” under the proportionality framework, and then apply the four-pronged test (including the necessity/least restrictive alternative prong). Then, you flip it around, and repeat the same process – but this time, the right is the right to information/freedom of expression, and the “legitimate aim” is the policy underlying the protection of privacy.

It may be conceptually possible that the PIO might find that the “right” to privacy is being disproportionately infringed by the claim to information, but also that the freedom of expression is disproportionately infringed if the information isn’t disclosed. Such a clash is unlikely to happen in practice, though; it might, however, demonstrate a need for the actual analysis to be done in one step (in the “balancing” form outlined above – or a more refined variant of how earlier Indian cases have done it: simply by asking which of the two rights in this case would serve “greater” public interest, if implemented), while for conceptual reasons, the two need to be kept separate.

The devil, of course, will be in the details; and as the proportionality standard continues to take root and grow in Indian constitutional jurisprudence, such difficult issues about its meaning and application will continue to come up before courts.