A bill aimed at curtailing the chief justice of Pakistan’s (CJP) powers to take suo motu notices and constituting benches of the Supreme Court was presented in the National Assembly after being approved by the federal cabinet on Tuesday.
The cabinet summary, available with Dawn.com, for the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill, 2023, said the exercise of original jurisdiction by the apex court under Article 184(3) of the Constitution was a “subject of discussion by various forums”.
A day ago, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail of the Supreme Court (SC) had called for revisiting the power of the “one-man show” enjoyed by the chief justice, saying that the country’s top court could not “be dependent on the solitary decision of one man”.
The two had made the remarks in a detailed dissenting note — released on Monday hours after the SC took up the PTI’s plea challenging the postponement of elections in Punjab — for the top court’s March 1 verdict regarding holding elections in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, where the two provincial assemblies have been dissolved.
The two judges said the suo motu proceedings regarding the provincial elections stood dismissed by a majority of 4-3 and contended that the CJP did not have the power to restructure benches without the consent of the respective judges.
Earlier today, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif hailed the dissenting note as a “ray of hope” during his National Assembly speech and called for relevant legislation in its wake.
Regarding the constitution of benches, the bill passed by the cabinet today states that every cause, matter or appeal before the apex court would be heard and disposed of by a bench constituted by a committee comprising the CJP and the two senior-most judges. It added that the decisions of the committee would be taken by a majority.
Regarding exercising the apex court’s original jurisdiction, the bill said that any matter invoking the use of Article 184(3) would first be placed before the abovementioned committee.
“If the committee is of the view that a question of public importance with reference to enforcement of any of the fundamental rights conferred by Chapter I of Part II of the Constitution is involved, it shall constitute a bench comprising not less than three judges of the Supreme Court of Pakistan which may also include the members of the committee, for adjudication of the matter,” the bill reads.
On appealing any verdict by an apex court bench which exercised Article 184(3)‘s jurisdiction, the bill said that the appeal will lie within 30 days of the bench’s order to a larger SC bench. It added that the appeal would be fixed for hearing within a period not exceeding 14 days.
The bill also proposed changes to other aspects of the law.
It said that a party would have the right to appoint its counsel of choice for filing a review application under Article 188 of the Constitution.
Furthermore, “an application pleading urgency or seeking interim relief, filed in a cause, appeal or matter, shall be fixed for hearing within 14 days from the date of its filing.”
The bill said that its provisions would have effect notwithstanding anything contained in any other law, rules or regulations for the time being in force or judgement of any court, including the SC and high courts.
Bill presented in NA
The bill was later presented in the National Assembly by Law Minister Azam Nazeer Tarar, who said the use of Article 184(3) in the country’s judicial history had garnered a lot of criticism, particularly from bar associations.
“There were also periods when the Supreme Court took three to four suo motu notices in a day on administrative matters. If you look at history then many important national assets were denationalised and privatised … but all those matters were reversed by Article 184(3) proceedings, the results of which are before us.”
He said that suo motu notices were taken on trivial issues which “did nothing to add to the Supreme Court’s sanctity” and remained subjects of discussion.
Tarar said some former CJPs had used their rights in a way that “harmed the institution’s sanctity and violated the trichotomy of powers … because of which fingers were pointed at the court’s status and sanctity”.
He said there was a “consistent demand” for parliament to deliberate on how benches should be constituted, how Article 184(3)’s jurisdiction should be exercised and the right of appeal in suo motu cases.
Tarar said yesterday’s dissenting note had “unleashed a wave of concern … that due to this division in the institution and this power which has been given to an individual, there is some kind of harm” to the apex court.
He said the law ministry proposed the bill, which the federal cabinet deliberated upon and unanimously approved.
Subsequently, NA Speaker Raja Pervaiz Ashraf referred to the bill to the law and justice committee.
Resolution adopted against judiciary’s ‘unreasonable interference in political matters’
Meanwhile, Information Minister Marriyum Aurangzeb presented a resolution, which stated that the House deemed the judiciary’s “unreasonable interference in political matters the cause of political instability”.
It said that the House supported the stance of the four dissenting judges in the apex court’s March 1 order regarding KP and Punjab polls and demanded its implementation, along with the expectation that the higher judiciary would refrain from interfering in political and administrative matters.
The resolution said that the Election Commission of Pakistan was an independent institution which was obligated to hold fair and free elections and its constitutional role should not be interfered in.
The resolution said that the elections for all assemblies should take place at the same time under caretaker governments to ensure “actual political stability”.
Lastly, it said that matters requiring collective wisdom and in which calls for such are made, should be listened to by a full court bench of the Supreme Court.
The resolution was subsequently adopted by the National Assembly.
PTI terms bill ‘attempt to pressure SC’
Reacting to the bill, PTI Chairman Imran Khan said it was only approved to pressure the Supreme Court and said he doubted the government’s intention.
“We all want reforms but the nation understands their only intent is to run away from elections,” Imran said.
PTI Secretary General Asad Umar termed the development an “attack on the SC’s independence”.
PTI Senior Vice President Fawad Chaudhry rejected the amendments, saying that only an “elected parliament” had the right to do so after a detailed debate.
Additional reporting by Nadir Gurmani.