ISLAMABAD: The Senate Thursday approved the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Bill, 2023 amid strong protest by the opposition Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) senators.
The proposed piece of legislation, aimed to curtail the powers of chief justice, giving the right to appeal in all suo motu cases with retrospective effect, was adopted by the House, though the opposition termed it an attack on the judiciary.
Before the final vote on the bill, a motion was presented to send the bill to the Senate Standing Committee on Law and Justice for further debate, but it was rejected. Out of a total of 79 members present in the House at that time, 60 senators supported the bill, while only 19 opposed it, whereas the PTI has 25 members in the 100-member House. Those not present in the House were Saifullah Nyazee, Ijaz Chaudhry and Aon Abbas among others. As per the record, in all, 82 legislators attended the Senate. It was learnt that not only Balochistan Awami Party (BAP) members but also independents and some Dilawar Group members supported the bill.
Already passed by the National Assembly a day earlier, the bill was taken up for consideration and adoption without being referred to the House standing committee concerned. Law Minister Azam Nazir Tarar moved the bill amid the opposition’s strong protest over what they called an assault on the judiciary and an attempt to amend the Constitution through simple legislation.
The PTI legislators tore up copies of the agenda and threw them up, as the chair called for order in the House. Later, they gathered before the dais of the Senate chairman and the treasury benches. Some of them were carrying placards, inscribed with slogans including ‘Assault on judiciary unacceptable’.
The law minister explained some salient features of the bill and pointed out that it proposed the constitution of benches and allocation of cases by a committee comprising chief justice and two senior-most judges. He added the right of appeal had been given in the new law, which has been a longstanding demand of the bar councils and bar associations.
Justifying the amendment, the minister contended that one has to keep room for amendment in the law to meet the needs of people in accordance with contemporary needs. He noted, “A new trend was witnessed in the Supreme Court in the past two decades, as instead of running the court through collective wisdom, the court became dependent on an individual.”
While speaking against the excessive use of powers to take suo motu notices, Tarar said it was against the concept of trichotomy of powers enshrined in the Constitution, whereas the state had incurred losses to the tune of billions of dollars because of suo motu notices. He specifically cited the examples of Pakistan Steel Mills privatisation matter and the Reko Diq agreement. The minister continued that a liver hospital also became a victim of the personal ego of the-then chief justice.
Referring to the dissenting voices, the law minister pointed out that there had now surfaced an opinion from within the Supreme Court that the power to constitute benches should not be in the hands of an individual.
The minister argued that only collective thinking takes institutions forward. “If you want to strengthen institutions, then strengthen the system instead of personalities, so that the institution can deliver,” he emphasised.
He added that the bill would solve the issues of deciding when a certain case has to be fixed for hearing and whether or not it is of public importance.
Tarar recalled that there had been demands for a full court bench when highly important national cases were fixed for hearing by a three- or five-member bench, and then, he highlighted the last full court meeting was held in 2019, which he termed ‘in-auspiciousness of luck’. The minister said the bill was aimed at bringing to an end an absolute monopoly of an individual and instead promoting collective decision-making.
In his hard-hitting speech, Leader of the Opposition in the Senate Dr Shahzad Waseem termed the bill a direct attack on the independence of the judiciary and disputed the government’s claim. He insisted the bill was in no way aimed at reforming the judicial system but directed at protecting political and personal interests. The real purpose behind the controversial legislation, he claimed, was to escape elections.
Without naming the former prime minister Nawaz Sharif, he said the right to appeal in suo motu cases with retrospective effect was designed to get the disqualification reversed, after getting relief in corruption cases.
Taking the floor, former chairman Senate Mian Raza Rabbani said what was happening in the Supreme Court was a matter of concern and noted that when institutions become redundant and indulge in infighting, it must set alarm bells ringing for all. “It is a matter of concern that when institutions within any society start to clash, they are a wake-up call for the entire country and the state,” he noted.
Rabbani said parliament had been made redundant under a pre-conceived plan and what was happening in the Supreme Court for a few days did not augur well for Pakistan. He made it clear that the parliament could not become a silent spectator to the erosion of another institution, functioning under the Constitution. He regretted that the political parties took their disputes to the judiciary and noted that instead, parliament should be a platform for dialogue and mediation.
PTI’s Barrister Syed Ali Zafar assured the House that the Supreme Court was not a rival of parliament, deploring the fact that a bill landed in the parliament overnight at a time when a case was being heard by the Supreme Court, where the issue of polls delay had been raised. He said he had two objections to the bill. “Only constitutional amendment can be made in 184(3). If you pass laws this way, then it will be struck down within 15 days,” warned the senator. He added that the right to appeal can only be given through the Constitution.
Zafar said that the Senate’s standing committee had sent a constitutional amendment for the right to appeal. He also warned that by opening the past cases, the SC would have to hear thousands of cases again. “There is also a divide among lawyers on this bill. Such amendments cannot be made without amending the Constitution,” said Zafar. He added that some changes suggested by the bill are illegal.
Jamaat-e-Islami (JI) Senator Mushtaq Ahmad also expressed his reservations about the bill and regretted that legislations were enacted only to benefit the elite. He pointed out that the government criticised the judiciary for meddling in the domain of the parliament, but was averse to talking about the military intervention.
National Party’s Senator Tahir Bizenjo said that had those, who abrogated the Constitution and the judges protecting them, been awarded stern punishment, the country would not have faced constitutional crisis and political and economic instability.
The House also passed The Lawyers Welfare and Protection Bill, 2023 and The Inter Boards Coordination Commission Bill, 2023. The House will now resume proceedings Friday morning.