No More ‘One-Man Show’: Why Pakistan wants to curb powers of its Chief Justice
National Assembly, Pakistan’s lower house of Parliament, has passed a bill that would curtail the powers of the Chief Justice to take suo motu notice in a sole capacity. The move has been hailed by the Shehbaz Sharif-led government which has accused the apex court of creating ‘political instability’
Pakistan is on its way to curbing the powers of the country’s Chief Justice.
National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament, passed a bill on Wednesday (29 March) that would limit the powers of the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) to take suo motu notice in an individual capacity.
A suo motu means when a court takes cognisance of a matter on its own that it considers being of public interest and initiates proceedings, as per Al Jazeera.
This suo motu power is based on the original jurisdiction of the apex court under Article 184 (3) of Pakistan’s Constitution, says Geo News.
As per The News International report, the bill will be presented in the Senate for approval today (30 March).
How will the proposed legislation curtail the powers of the CJP and why was it introduced? What do experts say?
Let’s take a closer look.
Bill to clip CJP’s discretionary powers
The Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill, 2023 states that any matter or appeal before the top court would be heard by a bench formed by a three-member committee consisting of the CJP and two other senior-most judges, reported Dawn.
Any matter under Article 184(3) will also first be placed before this panel.
“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,” says the bill.
National Assembly passes ‘The Supreme Court (Practice and
Procedure) Bill, 2023’
The bill was presented by Minister for Law and Justice @AzamNazeerTarar.@PTVNewsOfficial @PID_Gov @demp_gov @RadioPakistan @appcsocialmedia
— National Assembly of 🇵🇰 (@NAofPakistan) March 29, 2023
Another clause allows appeals within 30 days of a judgement being announced in a suo motu case and a bench will have to hear such an appeal within 14 days.
It further states: “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”.
Political reactions to the bill
Pakistan’s federal minister for law and justice Azam Nazeer Tarar, who tabled the bill in the Parliament Wednesday, said it “was an old demand of the bar councils which said that indiscriminate use of 184(3) should be stopped”.
He stated the legislation would make the proceedings of the Supreme Court more “transparent”, as per Dawn.
Addressing the law minister, the country’s foreign minister and Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) chairman Bilawal Bhutto Zardari, called the legislation “too little and too late”, saying it should be termed “judges empowerment” bill, reported Dawn.
Earlier, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif had said that “history would not forgive us” if the Parliament does not pass the law to clip the powers of the Chief Justice.
On Tuesday, the National Assembly passed a resolution criticising the Supreme Court for alleged “judicial activism” and demanding its “non-interference” in matters concerning the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP).
“This house believes that an unnecessary intrusion of the judiciary in the political matters is the main cause of political instability,” read the resolution, according to Al Jazeera.
Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) chairman Imran Khan has lambasted the government for trying to curtail the CJP’s powers.
“Every one of us wants judicial reforms. But, their [the PDM parties’] only goal is to escape from the election,” Geo TV quoted Khan as saying on Tuesday.
“The attack on the Supreme Court of Pakistan by the gang of criminals, the attempts to reduce its powers and degrade it, is being strongly resisted by the people and this resistance will continue,” the PTI chief said in a tweet.
Cabal of crooks attempts to attack the Supreme Court of Pakistan as well as undermine its powers is being and will continue to be resisted by the people of Pakistan.
— Imran Khan (@ImranKhanPTI) March 29, 2023
Why was the bill introduced?
It all started with Imran Khan.
The proposed legislation has come in the wake of the Supreme Court taking a suo motu notice of the ECP delaying provincial elections in the country’s most populous province, Punjab.
Former prime minister Imran Khan has called for early national elections, which are slated to be held later this year. His PTI launched a national campaign to pressurise the Sharif-led government to declare snap elections after the cricketer-turned-politician was ousted from power last April.
However, the government rejected his demand, prompting Khan to dissolve provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces this January, reported Al Jazeera.
Both provinces were ruled by Khan’s PTI.
The move aimed to force the government to announce polls as Pakistan historically conducts provincial and national elections together, as per Al Jazeera.
Pakistan’s constitution states that elections have to be held within 90 days of the dissolution of a legislative assembly.
However, after the ECP did not announce a poll schedule, President Arif Alvi – a member of Khan’s party – declared 9 April as the election date in both provinces.
After opposition to Alvi’s announcement, Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial took a suo motu notice of the matter on 23 February and started proceedings on his own.
Initially, he constituted a nine-member bench to hear the case; however, two judges recused themselves and two others opposed the decision to take suo motu cognisance.
After this, CJP Bandial formed a new bench. On 1 March, the five-judge bench in a 3-2 majority ordered the ECP to announce the election schedule for Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.
On 3 March, the election body set 30 April as the date for polls in Punjab. Last week, the ECP recalled this election schedule, citing security and financial concerns, as per the Al Jazeera report.
It also revised the poll date in Punjab to 8 October.
This led to a furious PTI approaching the apex court challenging the legality of ECP’s move.
The Punjab government reacted by moving a resolution against the Supreme Court itself, the report added.
On Monday, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail of the apex court, who were part of the five-member bench, in a 27-page dissenting note condemned the CJP’s unlimited power to take suo motu notice on any issue and constitute benches for important cases.
They said the Supreme Court “cannot be dependent on the solitary decision of one man, the Chief Justice”, as per an ANI report.
The judges said it was a 4-3 judgment to dismiss the maintainability of the suo motu case.
Rejecting the 3-2 verdict, the two judges said it is important “to revisit the power of ‘one-man show’ enjoyed by the office of the Chief Justice of Pakistan“.
What do experts say?
Legal experts have welcomed the bill but some have questioned the timing of the move.
Legal expert Salahuddin Ahmed, as cited by Dawn, said that bar councils and associations had been calling for organising and regularising the CJP’s authority for long.
Salaar Khan, an Islamabad-based lawyer and constitutional expert, told Al Jazeera he did not believe the bill would curb the Supreme Court’s powers.
“This bill is just about restructuring of power. It is currently the sole prerogative of the chief justice of the court to take suo motu notices. One could argue that the proposal is about expanding the role for other judges as well since the Supreme Court is not defined as just the chief justice, but other judges too,” he said.
Questioning Parliament’s move and the timing of the bill, Abuzar Salman Niazi, a Lahore-based lawyer and constitutional expert, told Al Jazeera, “What the government is trying to do is something that should have been done a long time ago. However, the way they are doing it is problematic”.
“It appears they are solely doing this to pressurise the chief justice of Pakistan,” he added.
With inputs from agencies
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