Editorial: Overuse of suo motu

Updated 20 Mar 2018


THE suo motu powers of the superior judiciary, especially the Supreme Court, are once again drawing public and legal scrutiny.

When used sparingly and according to well-defined rules, the suo motu powers of the superior judiciary can be a force for good.

Flagrant abuses of fundamental rights of individuals can be rectified through the use of suo motu and there have been a number of positive, deserving interventions in the past.

But the very fact that suo motu is a constitutionally stipulated intervention reserved for the superior judiciary suggests that it is meant to be used sparingly.

In the past, when suo motu powers have been interpreted expansively and applied liberally, the judicial system was quickly mired in controversy and the quality of justice dispensed arguably deteriorated even further.

That is especially true when the superior judiciary was seen to enter the political realm under the guise of enforcing the fundamental rights of the public.

The bedrock principles of a well-functioning judicial system ought to be fairness and consistency.

The suo motu powers of the superior judiciary should be used to enhance the fairness and consistency of the justice system.

Arguably, however, the most recent spate of suo motu actions by the superior judiciary, especially by Chief Justice Saqib Nisar, have injected uncertainty and unpredictability in the judicial system.

For the highest court in the land and the office of the chief justice of Pakistan there must be utmost respect. But respectful disagreement is also an essential part of a fair, consistent and esteemed judicial system.

The surge in suo motu interventions by the chief justice in recent days may be popular with the beneficiaries of those actions and sections of the public, but the interventions are not necessarily justifiable from the perspective of settled law and judicial norms. Quick justice is often no justice at all.

Particularly disappointing is the seeming lack of interest in systemic and institutional reforms. As the administrative head of Pakistan’s judicial system, the chief justice can help drive a reform agenda that parliament can legislate on where necessary and provide greater resources where the need is identified.

Indeed, suo motu owes its existence to a system where it is recognised that abuses may occur at the lower tiers and therefore it is important that fundamental rights be upheld in apex forums.

Addressing the flaws in the judicial system at the lower tiers would obviate the need for suo motu interventions by the superior judiciary.

It would also create a fair system because suo motu depends on a superior court taking notice of violations of fundamental rights that come to the attention of the court.

In a country of more than 200m people and one with an already overburdened judicial system, it is impossible for any court to address the people’s problems in an ad hoc way. The overuse of suo motu needs to be reconsidered.

Published in Dawn, February 4th, 2018