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A view of the National Assembly. — Photo by APP

ISLAMABAD: Like his party chief, the Public Accounts Committee chairman, Nadeem Afzal Gondal, of the Pakistan People’s Party is in no mood to befriend or court the Supreme Court judges. Mr Gondal has once again sought the opinion of the law ministry about whether rules allow his powerful committee to oversee accounts of the apex court.

For quite some time now, the PAC and the SC have locked horns over the right of the former to call the apex court's registrar, like principal accounting officers of other government departments, for scrutiny of its accounts.

Given the flared relations between the government and judiciary, and more so since the passage of the new contempt of court act, the pro-judiciary camp strongly believes that Mr Gondal is playing to the gallery by taking up arms against the institution.There is some truth to the last as the ongoing session of the National Assembly had lawmakers from the treasury benches speaking against what they described as the SC’s discriminatory attitude toward the government.

Noor Alam Khan, a PPP lawmaker from Peshawar, said pointedly: “When it comes to cases involving the PPP and its allied parties, the SC looks ever-ready to pass judgments.”

Bushra Rehman of the Awami National Party was equally hard-hitting in her comments targeting the superior judiciary: “I am completely against the bill that has been moved in the current session of the assembly asking for a 75 per cent increase in monthly remuneration for the widows of deceased judges.”

At the same time, she vociferously defended the PAC's position: “Judges are already getting hefty salaries, so the bill doesn’t make any sense. As for the current standoff between the PAC and the SC, for the sake of the supremacy of the parliament, it is imperative that the registrar appears before the committee.”

On the other hand, a member of the PAC hailing from the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) commented that the issue was badly timed.

“Yes, it’s an old issue, but considering the ongoing PPP versus the judiciary saga, where the two sides have taken extreme positions, people tend to believe the PAC is working at the behest of the governing party,” he said requesting anonymity, and then added, “I personally believe the committee which has so far followed a bipartisan policy shouldn’t have taken it up at this point in time.”

To another question, the PML-N lawmaker replied that the debate on PAC’s role vis-à-vis the SC warranted thorough deliberations, but playing it up in media was not going to leave a good taste in the mouth.

Meanwhile, in response to a letter written by former PAC chairman, Ch Nisar Ali Khan, the apex court has through a detailed answer defended its right of not appearing before the committee for regularisation of its expenditures.

“The remuneration payable to the judges of the Supreme Court — Article 81 (a) — and administrative expenses, including the remuneration payable to officers and servants of the court —Article 81 (b)— are amounts which are charged upon the federal consolidated fund and same are not paid out of the public accounts of the federation,” said the SC in its response to the PAC.

The apex court further explained that since the National Assembly had no oversight role on expenditures charged upon the federal consolidated fund, which were duly covered under Article 82 (1) of the Constitution, the PAC, being part of the parliament, could not call the SC registrar to appear before the committee.

On the other hand, the law ministry has supported the stance of the PAC and called upon the SC registrar to appear before the committee for the scrutiny of its accounts. Former Auditor General of Pakistan, Tanvir Agha, is also a proponent of the extension of the PAC’s oversight role to the SC. His views are upheld by his successor, the sitting AGP, Akhtar Buland Rana. When Dawn spoke to him this Thursday on the eve of the PAC meeting, he said that he supported the apex court's accounts being accountable to the PAC.In the tussle between upholding supremacy of the parliament and the independence of the judiciary, this battle is just another turf war that would be hotly contested.