ONCE again, the Supreme Court is in the news — and once again not necessarily for the right reasons. Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has renewed its demand for the Supreme Court registrar, Faqir Hussain, to appear before the committee and present the superior court’s administrative budget and expenses for scrutiny by the PAC. The demand that the registrar appear before the PAC is an old one. It is also one that the court has resisted over the life of this parliament, in fact since the mid-2000s. This time the PAC has not as yet set a fixed deadline for Mr Hussain to appear before the committee but the matter should come to a head by the second week of December if the court digs in its heels. Legalese aside, there is no clear legal or constitutional reason why the court can or should resist the PAC’s demands to scrutinise its expenditures. These expenditures are duly audited by the auditor general of Pakistan but not scrutinised by an independent body like the PAC. The court has taken refuge in a court decision from the mid-2000s after which the PAC’s oversight was rejected but few independent constitutional or legal experts accept the court’s rationale or argument.
Why, then, has the court resisted parliamentary scrutiny of its expenses? The assumption is that given the strains between the superior judiciary and the government, the court fears a public hearing on its expenses could become a political tool to undermine the court’s credibility and standing with the public. On the face of it at least, there is no reason to suspect the PAC will find anything seriously amiss in the court’s administrative expenses. Judges salaries’ are part of the official record and the lump sum transferred to the court to use in its discretion for salaries of court staff, upkeep of buildings, travel, etc is also known. Perhaps the court apprehends that the PAC, with its public hearings, could turn into a circus where politicians bandy about the sum it costs to keep a Supreme Court justice in office and the amount spent on infrastructure and travel — sums that even if innocuous could resonate in a negative way with the public in a struggling economy and with questions about the court’s ability to deliver effective, timely and low-cost justice still lingering.
But perceptions are not the law and neither is the PAC a government entity — even after the exit of Chaudhry Nisar Ali, the PAC remains a cross-party parliamentary body. Every other institution, including the military, has submitted to PAC scrutiny. So should the Supreme Court.