The revival of judicial activism
Pakistan Chief Justice Mian Saqib Nisar has taken dozens of suo motu notices in recent months. He has also visited hospitals in Lahore and Karachi which was not taken well by politicians and lawyers, who advised him to remove flaws in his institution and work for speedy and inexpensive justice to the people. He does not believe in judicial activism, but his actions prove he wants to make a difference in Pakistan’s judicial history through far-reaching reforms.
According to statistics, he has taken over 36 suo motu notices so far and all of them were issues of public interest, except three contempt notices, taken against former Senator Nihal Hashmi and ministers Talal Chaudhry and Daniyal Aziz. Nihal Hashmi has already been convicted. The CJP’s important notices are on foreign wealth, VIP movement, the Zainab murder case in Kasur and poor conditions at hospitals. In the foreign bank accounts case, he observed that many Pakistanis in positions of power held accounts in foreign banks and they had been robbing the country and transferring money abroad through illegal channels. “The wealth deposited in overseas bank accounts is a national asset and has to be brought back,” he observed and directed the Federal Board of Revenue (FBR), State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) and Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan (SECP) to submit details of wealth stashed abroad by Pakistanis. He also directed the Intelligence Bureau (IB), Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI), Military Intelligence (MI) and Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) to provide information to the court. The case could seal the fate of corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, if pursued with a resolve.
A notice of frequent roadblocks for VVIP movement in the country is also an important issue of public interest. On his order, barricades were removed from outside the residence of Hamza Shahbaz. He has announced that he would personally visit Lahore and Karachi to provide relief to people from roadblocks and barricades. The Punjab police sprang into action only after he took notice of the Zainab case in Kasur and the accused was arrested after almost two weeks of the incident. Following growing complaints of lack of facilities at public hospitals in Lahore, he summoned medical superintendents of 19 hospitals in Lahore to appear before him with a detailed report on facilities at their respective facilities.
In a landmark step, the chief justice has decided to hear cases on Saturdays and Sundays. He has also issued new policy guidelines to the judiciary to check delays in cases and get rid of backlog. The guidelines include directions that stay orders, rent, succession and other such cases should be decided within a period of six months. The district judiciary has been ordered to announce judgments in 30 days whereas High Courts cannot reserve verdicts for more than three months. The National Judicial Policymaking Committee (NJPC) has also decided to set up expert courts to decide special cases such as rent, family and child care, etc. It has also recommended alternate dispute resolution methods to resolve common disputes of the general public in a timely and cost-efficient manner. Effectively use of information technology is the hallmark of the policy to clear the backlog. The committee has also sought improvement in the existing process of serving notices, summons, etc., to check delays.
The NJPC also decided to reform the judicial sector for the provision of speedy justice to the people of Pakistan. Judges have been ordered to work with utmost dedication to address the problem of delay in disposal of cases and to clear backlog within available recourses. The parliament has also been directed to upgrade laws according to present needs. The High Courts will continuously monitor the district judiciary to know about reasons for delay in verdicts. To improve the criminal justice system, the court has decided to improve the standards of investigation and prosecution agencies, upgrade judicial academies, train judges, publish bench books for judges for ready references to basic principles of civil and criminal laws.
It appears the chief justice has started taking suo motu notices only after introducing wide-ranging reforms in the judiciary. However, the ruling Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) and the Pakistan People Party (PPP) are concerned over the revival of judicial activism. They accuse the superior judiciary of interfering into the executive affairs. Some have already started comparing him with former Chief Justice Iftikhar Muhammad Cahudhry, who made headlines daily, but failed to transform judicial activism into public service and speedy and inexpensive justice to the common man. Lawyers are also worried about the appointment of retired judges to oversee certain matters, which are being adjudicated by the Supreme Court.
Lawyers are also divided on the return of suo motu notices. One group says the approach is necessary to wake up the executive to discharge its responsibilities. They say one could object to the chief justice’s style of conducting proceedings, but his judgments are within the parameters of the law. However, they urged him to ensure that his remarks and speeches are carefully worded because everything he says is taken very seriously. They say the performance of the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan has also not been satisfactory for the last decade and there is a dire need to revamp the institution for the delivery of justice. They complain that the Judicial Commission of Pakistan rules have not been reviewed to ensure transparency in the appointment of judges despite demands of lawyers and their bodies. The process of accountability in the judiciary has also slowed down. The Supreme Judicial Council, led by the chief justice, initiated misconduct proceedings against few judges but the matter has been pending after two of them challenged the SJC rules in the court. They suggest the chief justice shift his focus only to improve the justice system as it is the area where he can leave a lasting legacy in Pakistan.