The Supreme Court Practice and Procedure Bill, 2023, was passed by the National Assembly on Wednesday in a notable session, also for the content of the speeches by members of parliament. The law, dubbed ‘historic’ by some political actors and ‘selfish, unjust, and cynical’ by others, proposes to limit the chief justice of Pakistan’s discretionary powers to take suo motu notice. The move follows Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial suo motu ruling on the Punjab and Khyber elections by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah and Justice Jamal Khan Mandokhail on Monday. According to the bill, every cause, appeal, or matter before the Supreme Court must be heard and decided by a bench composed of the Chief Justice of Pakistan and two of the Supreme Court’s most senior judges.
According to the new law, any matter requiring the exercise of original jurisdiction under Article 184(3) must first be referred to the committee for review. The bill also includes the right of appeal in cases decided under Article 184, as proposed by MNA Mohsin Dawar (3). According to most reports, this is the clause that will now allow Mian Nawaz Sharif and Jahangir Khan Tareen, among others, to appeal their lifetime disqualification. The bill now allows for an appeal against suo-motu verdicts rendered up to 30 days prior to the passage of the Lawyers’ Protection Act.
On the same day, Justices Qazi Faez Isa and Aminuddin Khan ruled that the hearing of all cases under Article 184(3) should be postponed until the Supreme Court Rules regarding the Chief Justice’s power to form benches are amended. A third judge disagreed, but this has sparked a discussion about the formation of benches. Taken as a whole, the majority of the country’s legal minds have sided with the law, hailing it as a much-needed reform. To be fair, these changes aren’t anything out of the ordinary.
These discussions have been going on for more than a decade. Since the Lawyers’ Movement, judicial reform has been a consistent demand, made by most thinking lawyers, legal academics, and even superior court judges. One would think that now that the parliament, which is the best forum to address these issues, has tabled a bill, it would be welcomed. But, in these polarised times, that would be incorrect. The PTI has criticised the bill, claiming that its timing makes it unpopular.
However, in Pakistan, which suffers from a case of too much happening both politically and otherwise, there has rarely been a ‘right time’ to pass any such law. As a result, most legal experts believe that this is a good bill that should be passed. With the judiciary venturing into contentious waters as a result of recent bench formations, it is past time to settle these issues once and for all.
There have been far too many discussions about the power of suo motu, the CJ’s bench formation powers, the right to appeal, the process of appointing superior judges, and so on. Isn’t it past time to put some of these debates to rest with concrete legislation? As some legal experts have pointed out, the Supreme Court is composed of all of the top court’s judges, not just the CJP. And, on the surface, this bill appears to be attempting to empower the entire SC rather than just one individual, as has been the case in the past. In the long run, this will only benefit the cause of justice while also removing some of the controversy associated with the office and stature of the chief justice of the highest court in the land.