• Four-point proposal relies on existing provisions, e.g. contempt of court, to counter interference
• Plan ‘ignores’ issues like dismal working conditions, stalled promotions in lower judiciary
• Legal expert says response does not match seriousness of issue at hand

ISLAMABAD: Even though most of its members are the ones who agitated the matter publicly, it took judges of the Islamabad High Court (IHC) nearly a month to come up with a ‘unanimous proposal’ on ways to end external meddling in judicial affairs.

But while there are few doubts about their resolve to tackle this longstanding issue, the suggestions put forward by the judges do not contain many new policies or measures, instead relying on laws that are already in vogue.

The proposal — prompted by a letter penned by six IHC judges — does, however, introduce penal consequences for the lower judiciary if they fail to communicate to their inspection judges any instance of external influence, but no similar measures are prescribed for judges of superior courts.

The four-point resolution, signed by all eight IHC judges — including the six who wrote the original letter — proposes that in case someone approaches an IHC judge, they should report it to the chief justice of the high court in writing within seven days of the occurrence.

District court judges of the capital have also been asked to report such matters within seven days to inspection judges. In case a district court judge does not make a report, they may be charged with misconduct and could be liable for disciplinary proceedings as well.

Judges of the high court have also proposed an institutional response to any meddling attempt, under which criminal proceedings could be initiated against a private individual — or in case they are linked with any official department then the administration would take up the matter with the bosses of the department concerned.

Moreover, the resolution suggested that Article 204 of the Constitution, which deals with contempt of court, may be invoked against those who would try to interfere in judicial affairs, while any such occurrences would be taken by the high court’s Administration Committee.

This committee usually deals with major policy decisions with regards to the functioning of the high court and is reconstituted from time to time. It was last reconstituted in November 2022.

A judge in the Islamabad judiciary told Dawn that the IHC judges’ proposal ignored the dismal working condition of the lower judiciary, where some promotions had been withheld for well over a decade.

According to him, the decision to penalise judges from the subordinate courts would only demoralise them further.

Existing framework

Legal experts Dawn spoke to were of the view that except for introducing penal consequences for the subordinate judiciary, the other remedies suggested by the IHC judges were already available in the law.

For example, under Article 203 of the Constitution, the Islamabad High Court also supervises the lower judiciary and judicial officers of the district courts can send references through their respective sessions judges to the registrar, members of the inspection team, the inspection judge or even directly to the chief justice.

The court’s institutional response also borrows from past precedent. For example, in the case of former Gilgit-Baltistan chief judge Rana Shamim — who accused a judge of delaying bail to former PM Nawaz Sharif, allegedly at the behest of former CJP Saqib Nisar — the IHC proceeded against him under contempt laws, and the matter is still pending in court.

Former prime minister Imran Khan also faced a contempt case for intimidating a judicial officer when he threatened judge Zeba Chaudhry during a speech in Islamabad in 2022.

Retired Justice Shabbar Raza Rizvi, formerly a judge of the Lahore High Court, told Dawn that interference into judicial affairs had continued despite the presence of laws to prevent it.

He believes that now, with the issue out in the open, the court’s administration would be under public pressure to take measures against such external meddling.

Senior lawyer Ahsanuddin Sheikh told Dawn that while the judges had raised a very grave issue, i.e. external meddling in the judiciary’s affairs. However, in his view, the response did not appear to match the seriousness of the matter.

The proposal entails remedies already provided in the relevant laws, he said, adding that the proposal should have called for a judicial probe to trace the persons and institutions behind this meddling, in order to settle the issue once and for all.

He recalled the claims made by former IHC judge Shaukat Aziz Siddiqui, who had named certain individuals from an intelligence agency, saying that it would have been better if the proposal sent to the Supreme Court also included the initiation of an inquiry into the revelations he made in his speech delivered to the Rawalpindi District Bar, which ultimately led to his dismissal from service.

An inquiry to establish the veracity of his allegations, incidentally, was among the points mentioned in the original letter by the six IHC judges.

Published in Dawn, April 29th, 2024

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