On Wednesday, the National Assembly unanimously passed the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure), Bill 2023, curbing the chief justice of Pakistan’s suo motu powers. This has come about in a surprising turn of events when a day earlier the federal government not only ruled that the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) can no longer constitute benches and initiate suo motu proceedings alone, but also tabled the same bill curtailing unbridled powers of the top judge in the National Assembly for approval. While these are much-needed reforms that have been pending for years given the history of the judiciary, the timing of this development has made this move extremely controversial.
As per the bill, a committee consisting of three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court would decide on the suo motu notice, while there would be a right to file an appeal within 30 days of the suo motu decision. This amendment to include the right to appeal is an important one considering how there have been instances in the past where the suo motu action did not necessarily serve the greater good. In such cases, the right to appeal should be considered a constitutional right. Following the passage of the law, no decision of the SC or high court, or any other law will be able to affect it.
While according to the government, the sole purpose of this move is to make proceedings more transparent, there is no denying that the matter of elections in the backdrop raises serious questions about the motivations. Those arguing that this is not the right time for such reforms in the present context are not wrong. However, it could be possible that the effect this development will have on the election debate is being overstated.
This legislation will not undo the constitutional requirement to hold the elections within 90 days. Further, this is not an entirely partisan issue considering how the current CJP is due to retire in September. It is also important to point out that the Supreme Court has already indicated that it will give its verdict on the matter in a day or two before the bill becomes law. As far as the appeal is concerned, it cannot be applied retroactively as the amendment did not exist when the current case was instituted. Therefore, this development will only potentially impact who will hear the eventual review of the decision, if one is applied for. However, given the prevailing situation and public sentiment, these nuances do not matter much, and given how the government has not hidden its intentions of delaying the elections, this attempt at important judicial reform will inevitably be tainted.