President Asif Ali Zardari on Monday signed off on a controversial bill to appoint retired high court judges to poll tribunals to settle electoral disputes.

The Elections (Amendment) Bill, 2024, empowers the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) to appoint retired high court judges to elections tribunals without the need to consult chief justices of the relevant apex courts..

The bill was passed by both the National Assembly on June 28 and Senate on July 4 despite severe protest by the opposition.

A statement from the President House said the bill was approved under Article 75 of the Constitution and now became an act.

“After the amendment, in case of appointment of a serving judge in the election tribunal, the chief justice of the concerned high court will be consulted,” the statement said.

According to the statement of object and reasons: “In the year 2023, through the Elections (Amendment) Act, 2023, an amendment was made in the said Section 140 to make only the serving judge of a high court as member of the election tribunal in respect of cases of an election to an assembly or the Senate.

“But the fact of the workload of high courts in pending litigation was overlooked, which workload in heavy pendency of cases still exists and it is very difficult for the serving judges of the high courts to spare required time for swift adjudication of election petitions.

“As such, it is appropriate to restore the original provision of the said Section 140 so as also to make retired judges of high courts eligible for appointment as member of the election tribunal for hearing of election petitions in respect of election to the National Assembly, the Senate and provincial assemblies.

“Similarly, for consistency, it is desirable to make retired district and sessions judges and retired additional district and sessions judges eligible for appointment as member of the election tribunal for hearing of election petitions in respect of election to a local government.”

Separately, the Supreme Court has taken up an ECP appeal to settle a raging controversy over who should appoint tribunals to decide election disputes, the commission or the Lahore High Court (LHC).

On May 29, the LHC had held that under Article 219(c) read with Article 222(b) of the Constitution, the LHC chief justice enjoyed primacy in the appointment of election tribunals under Section 140 of the Elections Act, 2017.

According to the ECP, the interpretation of the single judge does not accord with Articles 219(c), 222(d) and its proviso, 225 of the Constitution and sections 140(1) and (3) and 151 of the Elections Act.

Last week, the apex court had suspended the LHC’s June 12 notification of constituting eight election tribunals in Punjab as well as the LHC’s determination that its chief justice has the final say in the appointment of tribunals to settle poll disputes.

Headed by Chief Justice of Pakistan Qazi Faez Isa, a five-judge Supreme Court bench had suspended the notification to pave the way for meaningful consultation between the recently elevated chief justice of LHC Aalia Neelum and Chief Election Commissioner Sikandar Sultan Raja for the formation of tribunals.

In May, Senate Chairman Yousuf Raza Gilani, serving as the acting president at the time, had signed the Elec­tions Act (Ame­nd­m­ent) Ordinance 2024. The ordinance allowed for election tribunals to have retired judges as their members, besides serving judges.

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