‘Assent’ of the president

Published August 27, 2023
The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.
The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

PRESIDENT Dr Arif Alvi, on Aug 20, 2023, went on his X (formerly Twitter) account to allege that he had not ‘assented’ to two bills seeking amendments to the Pakistan Army Act, 1952, and the Official Secrets Act, 1923, both of which the government had already notified as duly promulgated acts by parliament. In fact, the government hastily moved to prosecute certain PTI leaders under these amended ‘acts’.

The controversy around the ‘assent’ of the president is against the following backdrop of law and facts:

(1) Article 75 of the Constitution provides a multidimensional approach to the ‘assent’ of the president necessary to the passage of a ‘bill’ of parliament to an ‘act’ of parliament. There is a distinct dichotomy in the Article between ‘assent’ and ‘deemed assent’.

(2) Thus, Article 75 charges the president, within 10 days, to either ‘assent to the bill’ as covered by sub-Article 75(1)(a) or return the bill to parliament with “a message requesting that the bill or any specified portion thereof, be reconsidered” by the joint session of parliament and, if passed on such reconsideration, with or without amendment, it shall be presented to the president who “shall give his assent within ten days, failing which such assent shall be deemed to have been given” (Article 75(2)).

The right to assent to bills before they become law is not a trivial right that should be ‘deemed’.

(3) Against this constitutional background, simply presented, the president has alleged that he did not “assent” to the bills. There is the detail about his instructions to his staff which were allegedly not carried out. These details may impact on the good governance and the personal conduct of the president in not fully complying with his obligations under Article 75 but what needs to be examined is whether such governance and conduct impact on the constitutional requirement of “assent” required under Article 75(1)(a). It is clarified that as the president did not return the bills with a “message” under Article 75(1)(b), the provisions of Article 75(2) are not attracted.

The pivotal issue to be addressed simply is whether in not returning the bills within 10 days, with or without a message, the president shall be deemed to have ‘assented’ to the bills under Article 75.

‘Assent’ in the Constitution is always understood to mean an unequivocal intent to support or approve a measure. An assent, generally, to be valid and legal must, borrowing from the timeless principles of contract law, be consensus ad idem, that is assent in the same sense upon the same thing. Thus, if the parties are not ad idem, there is no assent. Assent, accordingly, must normally be expressed through the signatures of the president or communicated through his subordinate staff, in writing, as allowed by the applicable Government Rules of Business, 1973. It thus remains to be investigated whether the government complied with this constitutional requirement at the time it notified the ‘bills’ as ‘acts’. Clearly, the bills could not become acts if there was no substantial compliance with this basic obligation. If the president had not signed his assent or not communicated his assent through his office as enabled by the Government Rules of Business, there, clearly, was no assent under the Constitution for purposes of Article 75(1)(a) and the issuance of the notification of the bills as acts was flawed, irregular, illegal and unconstitutional.

A few other comments about ‘assent’ and ‘deeming’ provisions of law may be helpful in the above result.

First, an ‘assent’ could be unequivocally expressed in writing as through a signature. But our jurisprudence is also familiar with ‘constructive assent’ or ‘implied assent’. None of these have been invoked by the caretaker law minister and, in any event, the extension of such assents in Article 75(1)(a) would be reading something that is not there.

Second, the deeming provisions in a Constitution or law are exceptional provisions and are always interpreted restrictively. The word ‘deemed’ conveys a fiction whereby a thing is legally treated in a particular manner when in fact it does not so exist. A deeming provision creates a legal fiction, which is otherwise not factual, and the interpretation of such provisions is always most guarded in the jurisprudence of all legal systems. We canvass that the deeming provisions of Article 75 are limited, as per the express provisions of Article 75(2), to the reconsideration of parliament of the message of the president sent under Article 75(1)(b). It is a fundamental principle of constitutional construction that you cannot read into the Constitution that which is not written there. Had it been intended to read the deeming fiction in Article 75(1)(a), the Constitution would have so stated as it did in Article 75(2).

The oft-repeated observation on the interpretation of deeming clauses in the rich jurisprudence of our Supreme Court and the superior judiciary compels that “statutory fiction should be carried to its logical conclusion … but the fiction cannot be extended beyond the language of the section by which it is created or by importing another fiction”, therefore, to find out a solution, it has been observed that the “principle of harmonisation shall be attracted” and ultimately it was held that “the impact of deeming clause could be curtailed if it produces a disgraceful result” (emphasis added).

Here, let us look at the enormity of the implications of a “deeming assent”. The president’s right to assent to a bill is a part of the fundamental basic structure of our Constitution of checks and balances meant in the ultimate interest for the welfare of the common man. The right to ‘assent’ to bills before they become the law of the land is not a trivial right that should be ‘deemed’ when the president has, particularly, expressly and publicly said that he did not ‘assent’ for purposes of Article 75(1)(a).

The president may be guilty of poor office-keeping and ineffective indoor management (a concept known to corporate lawyers) but such conduct cannot be extended to allege his abdication or relinquishment of his right to assent under Article 75(1)(a) which, as we suggest, should be clear, unequivocal, unambiguous and in writing through his signature or through his office as may be enabled by the Government Rules of Business.

The writer is a senior advocate of the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2023

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