Behind the Bill: Reforming Suo Motu Powers in the Midst of a Standoff

A bill has arrived in Parliament that, if passed, would amend the suo motu powers of the Chief Justice. This has caused somewhat of a standoff between the government and the Supreme Court. So, what is the Bill about, and why is it controversial?

The Bill

The Bill provides for creating a committee comprising the Chief Justice and the two senior-most judges of the Supreme Court. This committee will constitute benches to hear any matters and issues before the Supreme Court. This means they decide, by the majority, which justices will hear what case and how many of them will form a single bench. Suppose a suo motu action is being taken by the Chief Justice. In that case, the committee will first decide whether the matter is of public importance and deals with fundamental rights and, thus, whether or not the matter shall be examined. The suo motu action can also be appealed and would thus lie before a larger bench.

The Purpose of these changes, as described in the Bill

The Supreme Court’s exercise of original jurisdiction has sparked numerous discussions among various forums. These discussions have centred around the court’s use of Suo Motu powers, the formation of benches, and the absence of the right to appeal. These issues have raised concerns about upholding the fundamental principles of a fair trial and due process of law, as guaranteed by Article 10A of the Constitution. Furthermore, there is a pressing need to address the problem of applications for early hearings and appeals that are not promptly scheduled for consideration. Additionally, citizens’ right to appoint a counsel of their choice, a crucial aspect of their legal representation, requires careful review, particularly in cases filed under Article 188 of the Constitution, which deals with reviewing judgements and orders by the Supreme Court. 

Popular Opinions

The popular opinion regarding this amendment has been that it is a necessary step in the right direction. The Chief Justice has historically held significant power to influence important decisions in the Supreme Court. Particularly, in recent times, the powers of suo motu have been abused to the point of abuse. It has acted as a means for the CJP to act as a one-man show and deal with matters that he even personally finds unreasonable.

Moreover, the decision regarding setting up benches and creating the committee helped with the involvement of more diverse opinions on the Supreme Court bench. These decisions are usually based upon the political inclination of the judges, and very often, the bench tends to lean one way. A solution can involve the entire bench in every case, but this is impossible with the sheer load that the Supreme Court needs to sustain regularly. Thus, having a committee that can decide what cases require this special step will be very helpful. However, this would be helpful if the two senior judges besides the CJP were not under the CJP’s influence.

The Issue With Timing

Despite the positive response to the Bill itself, it is not lost on most of the country that the timing of this Bill is suspicious. This Bill arrived in Parliament when the issue of the dates of elections was still very much a hot topic. The Supreme Court had given the government a deadline to have elections which the government then failed to follow through on. While the previous suo motu power was certainly controversial, it was still legally binding, and the government’s decision to oppose an order of the Supreme Court violated the rule of law. And thus, as always, while the Bill itself is a net positive, it has not managed to escape controversy, and the government had something to gain from this Bill being passed, and this adds a level of insincerity that cannot easily be ignored.

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