The upper house of Pakistan’s parliament approved a suo motu legislation presented by the Law Minister, Azam Nazeer Tarar on March 30, 2023. The Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act 2023, which had previously been approved by the National Assembly a day before, was unanimously approved by the Senate.
This Act seeks to grant a three-member committee made up of senior judges, including the Chief Justice, the authority to take suo motu notice. Additionally, it incorporates the ability to appeal and to make the Supreme Court’s proceedings transparent.
What is Suo Motu?
Suo motu describes the judiciary’s capacity to operate autonomously, without a formal request or appeal from any party, to resolve matters of public significance in Pakistan. It comes from the Latin phrase which means “on its own motion/accord”. Suo motu actions are regarded as the outcome of judicial activism. Judge John Marshal’s decision in the famous case Marbury v. Madison at the beginning of the 19th century is credited for inspiring judicial activism.
In judicial review proceedings, where a harmed person or group requests the court’s intervention against the state’s conduct, judicial activism is certain. The exercise of the power of suo motu action by the Supreme Court under Article 184(3) of the 1973 Constitution is an extension of its judicial review powers.
According to Article 184(3) of the Pakistani constitution, the Supreme Court of Pakistan has the jurisdiction to take suo motu notice of any matter of public significance. It provides the Supreme Court with the authority to issue any order of the kind described in the aforementioned article if it determines that there is a matter of public importance pertaining to the enforcement of the basic rights of the citizens of Pakistan.
Theoretically, this means that the Supreme Court of Pakistan will take action or take notice of a situation if it believes that it affects a citizen’s fundamental rights and then issue the proper decision. However, it has been utilized by various Chief Justices for their own pursuits in the last ten years.
Legislation to Clip Suo Motu Powers
According to the legislation limiting the Chief Justice’s authority, the suo motu notice would be decided by a committee made up of the three senior-most judges of the Supreme Court, and an appeal could be filed within 30 days following the suo motu judgment. The Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act, 2023 further said that the appeal must be scheduled for hearing within 14 days of filing and that, following the suo motu notice, the hearing shall be presided over by a three-judge panel. It went on to state that everyone would agree with the majority’s choice in the situation.
Since the law has already been passed, it cannot be amended by the Supreme Court or the high courts’ rulings or by any other legislation. In accordance with the additional amendments, there would be a right of appeal for cases that are still pending and a bench made up of at least five judges would hear cases involving both constitutional and legal issues.
A Possible Lawyers’ Movement
It is difficult to estimate the effect of restricting the powers of suo motu legislation in Pakistan and what possible impact it may have on the legal system. It is expected that it may spark another lawyers’ movement in Pakistan. Here, it is worth noticing that the lawyers’ movement, which occurred in 2007, was brought on by a number of events, including the ouster of Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry at the time, the perceived erosion of the judiciary’s independence, and the alleged military meddling in domestic matters.
The suo motu legislation is a significant topic, yet it is only one part of Pakistan’s larger constitutional structure. The recent move by the parliament to curtail suo motu powers of the Chief Justice may spark demonstrations or opposition from some parties, including lawyers and civil society organizations, who may see such actions as a threat to the independence of the judiciary.
However, senior lawyers have backed the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act, 2023. They even claimed that the new legislation would limit the Chief Justice of Pakistan’s discretionary authority, something that the legal community had long strived for.
Nevertheless, various parameters will determine the reaction to the recent alterations, including the nature of the reform, the current political environment in the country, and their capacity to sway public opinion and draw attention. Ultimately, it is difficult to predict whether a new lawyers’ movement would arise in response to the changes in the suo motu powers, as this would depend on a variety of other factors.
In Pakistan, there has been debate concerning the judiciary’s use of suo motu powers. There are some who criticize the judiciary for utilizing its power frequently and believe it interferes with the powers of both the legislature and executive, which could potentially damage the concept of the separation of powers.
While the suo motu legislation may or may not result in the emergence of a lawyers’ movement, it will undoubtedly spark protests and rallies from lawyers and civil society organizations who view the judiciary as a crucial defender of their rights.
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