Why is Pakistan government trying to clip Supreme Court’s powers?

The government presents a bill in the National Assembly as PM Shehbaz Sharif accuses the top court of creating ‘political instability’.

A general view of the Supreme Court
A general view of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in capital Islamabad [File: Akhtar Soomro/Reuters]

Islamabad, Pakistan – A new constitutional crisis has emerged in Pakistan, which for months has been engulfed in another political crisis that shows no signs of abating.

On Tuesday, the government presented a bill in the National Assembly, the lower house of parliament, seeking to limit the powers of the Supreme Court, which, Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif alleged, was creating “political instability” in the country.

The legislation, called the Supreme Court (Practice and Procedure) Act, 2023, came after the top court took a “suo motu” notice of the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) delaying provincial elections in Punjab, the country’s most populous province.

A suo motu is when a court itself takes cognisance of a matter which it deems is in the public interest and commences proceedings on it.

Here’s all you need to know:

What has the government done?

The National Assembly on Tuesday passed a resolution accusing the Supreme Court of “judicial activism” and demanding its “non-interference” in matters related to the ECP.

“This house believes that an unnecessary intrusion of the judiciary in the political matters is the main cause of political instability,” said the resolution.

The draft bill presented in parliament seeks to amend laws regarding the conduct of the top court and suggests setting up a three-member panel headed by the chief justice to take up suo motu cases.

What triggered the gov’t-court tussle?

The genesis of the clash is the removal of former Prime Minister Imran Khan from power through a parliamentary vote of confidence in April last year.

Khan, who heads the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) party, launched a countrywide campaign to demand immediate national elections, otherwise scheduled later this year.

As the government rejected his demand, the 72-year-old cricketing icon-turned-politician decided to dissolve the provincial assemblies in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces in January.

The move was a part of Khan’s bid to force the elections, since Pakistan historically holds the provincial and national elections together.

However, according to Pakistan’s constitution, elections must be held within 90 days of the dissolution of a legislative assembly.

But a deadlock emerged when the ECP did not announce an election schedule, forcing President Arif Alvi, a member of Khan’s PTI, to unilaterally declare April 9 as the poll date in the two provinces.

Three days later, as observers questioned the legality of Alvi’s announcement, Chief Justice of Pakistan Umar Ata Bandial on February 23 decided to take a suo motu notice of the issue and initiated a hearing on his own.

After four judges recused from the original nine-judge bench constituted to hear the issue, the Supreme Court on March 1, in a 3-2 verdict, ordered the ECP to fulfil its constitutional obligation and announce an election schedule for Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa provinces.

Two days later, on March 3, the ECP said the vote in Punjab province will be held on April 30.

But the poll body last week withdrew its schedule, saying it was impossible to hold the vote in April due to security and financial concerns. It announced October 8 as the new poll date in Punjab.

A furious PTI approached the Supreme Court, which is now debating whether the ECP’s move is legal. That forced the government to move a resolution against the court itself.

What do legal experts say?

Some legal experts are of the opinion that while the proposed amendments by the government to cut the Supreme Court’s powers are welcome, the way the parliament is doing it is questionable.

“What the government is trying to do is something that should have been done a long time ago. However, the way they are doing it is problematic,” Abuzar Salman Niazi, a Lahore-based lawyer and constitutional expert, told Al Jazeera.

Niazi said most of the changes proposed by the government are constitutional amendments, which require a two-thirds majority in parliament, which the Sharif government lacks.

He also questioned the timing of the bill. “It appears they are solely doing this to pressurise the chief justice of Pakistan,” he said.

“A simple act of parliament to regulate judiciary with respect to procedural and substantive law might be in conflict with the independence of judiciary which is a basic structure of our constitution. The courts may strike it down if reviewed or challenged by court,” he added.

However, Salaar Khan, an Islamabad-based lawyer and constitutional expert, told Al Jazeera he did not believe the proposed amendment will curtail the Supreme Court’s powers.

“This bill is just about restructuring of power. It is currently the sole prerogative of the chief justice of the court to take suo motu notices. One could argue that the proposal is about expanding the role for other judges as well since the Supreme Court is not defined as just the chief justice, but other judges too,” he said.

Niazi said the government should have tried to put pressure on the court to make the changes it wants instead of tabling a bill in parliament.

“The government is proposing to amend the rules of the Supreme Court which is the job of the apex court itself. What if the court takes up a matter of parliamentary rules and procedure tomorrow and starts dictating how the parliament should conduct its affairs? It would have been better to let the Supreme Court amend its own rules and procedures,” he added.

Source: Al Jazeera