1 Feb 2010

Corporate's tax return under RTI? Matter reaches High Court.

The Delhi High Court has stayed a recent of the CIC which was taken as a big set back by all corporate entities wherein the Central Information Commission had declared that the copies of tax return filed by the corporate entities can be sought under the Right to Information Act from the Income Tax Department. In passing this decision the CIC set aside all the objections of the companies as well the Income Tax authorities which chose to contend that such information could not be given in terms of various exemptions under the RTI Act itself.

The CIC inter alia declared that;
  • Information relating to tax returns is not one kept under commercial confidence and its disclosure may not harm the competitive interests;
  • Tax information is not kept by the income tax authorities under fiduciary capacity;

"The information must be given by the holder of information when there is a choice- as when a litigant goes to a particular lawyer, or a patient goes to particular doctor. It is also necessary that the principal character of the relationship is the trust placed by the provider of information in the person to whom the information is given. An equally important characteristic for the relationship to qualify as a fiduciary relationship is that the provider of information gives the information for using it for the benefit of the giver. All relationships usually have an element of trust, but all of them cannot be classified as fiduciary.
In the present case, the information the Appellant is seeking information which the Department has received from members of the public as a result of their statutory obligation to file tax returns. Members of the public who have sent this information to the Department did not have any choice with regard to who they would like to send this information to. In fact, as there is a legal obligation to file these returns, members of the public have no choice with regard to the disclosure of this information to the Department. Traditionally, lawyer-client relationship and doctor-patient relationship have been considered to be examples of fiduciary relationship. In both these relationships, the lawyer and the doctor act on behalf and in the interest of their client and patient. The Department makes a tax assessment or takes any other action on this information based on the law and regulations relating to income tax. The Department does not take this action for the benefit of the tax assessees or in their personal interest. If the department were to take action for the benefit of the assessees, it would be considered a corrupt practice. The element of trust involve in such a situation is not the one required for a fiduciary relationship."
  • Tax information of corporates is not personal information;
"Section 8(1)(j) is with regard to personal information and therefore it can only be claimed by natural persons and not by corporate entities. The three Institutes cannot claim to have ‘personal’ information. There is a difference between having a personality, i.e. a legal personality, and owning ‘personal information’. Personal information is information relating to a natural person, not a legal person. Words in a law should normally be given the meanings given in common language. In common language we would ascribe the adjective 'personal' to an attribute which applies to an individual and not to an Institution or a Corporate. From this it flows that 'personal' cannot be related to Institutions, organisations or corporates. Hence Section 8(1)(j) cannot be applied when the information concerns institutions, organisations or corporates. Therefore, the Commission is of the opinion that Section 8(1)(j) cannot be relied on by these three third parties as they are not natural persons."
  • Where State obtains information in relationship of a public activity, it cannot be invasion of privacy;
"The State has no right to invade the privacy of an individual. There are some extraordinary situations where the State may be allowed to invade the privacy of a Citizen. In those circumstances special provisions of the law apply; usually with certain safeguards.
Therefore where the State routinely obtains information from Citizens, this information is in relationship to a public activity and will not be an intrusion on privacy. As this information has been provided by the assessee to meet his legal obligations, there is no unwarranted invasion of his privacy by the state. Therefore the disclosure of the same information to another person cannot be construed as being an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual.
Given our dismal record of misgovernance and rampant corruption which colludes to deny Citizens their essential rights and dignity, it is in the fitness of things that the Citizen’s Right to Information is given greater primacy with regard to privacy.
Hence information provided by individuals in fulfillment of statutory requirements will not be covered by the exemption under Section 8 (1) (j)."

The Delhi High Court, however, seemingly unimpressed, stayed the decision of the CIC. The final outcome on the legal position will, therefore, have to await.

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