Latin has never been the language of choice for the people of Pakistan, yet all of them will be aware of the term “Suo Motu”. While this law has existed for quite some time, and has been practiced by our Supreme Court in the past as well, it is only recently that it has taken a life of its own. This is primarily down to the Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP), Justice Mian Saqib Nisar’s penchant for wielding this power for whichever worthy cause he feels demands his attention the most. However, now it seems that hardly a day goes by without the CJP issuing a suo motu notice, and this raises the all-important question; is this a worthwhile endeavor on the part of Justice Nisar, or does it have far reaching negative consequences for the justice system in the country?
Suo Motu literally means “on its own motion” in Latin and it gives courts the power to act on their own authority, if and when they choose. While there is a common misconception that Pakistan is the only country to employ this law, it can actually be found the world over. However, it is rarely ever used the way it is done here, and even then very infrequently. The main difference remains that most countries do not provide their courts with this absolute power without first outlining its limitations, and the circumstances under which it can be used. In the US, for example, Suo Motu can only be declared if there is controversy surrounding a particular court case, while Canada has strict restrictions on the scope of its powers. It is mostly in South East Asia, with its underdeveloped justice systems that this law has been in such wide use.
Black and White
Indian courts have managed to post the highest number of Suo Motu cases in the world, yet it seems, like in most other spheres of life, Pakistan has set its sights on beating their record. Several high profile cases have prompted the CJP to take Suo Motu notice, in order to help the disenfranchised segments of society achieve even a modicum of justice. These include cases like that of Khadija Siddiqui, a law student who was stabbed 23 times in broad daylight yet saw her attacker walk away unscathed, or Shahzeb Khan, who was murdered by a man belonging to an influential Sindhi family who used his standing in society to force the victim’s family to accept payment in return for his release from jail. While arguably both these cases, and many more like it, deserved attention from the highest judicial authority in the country, others seem perhaps a little too trivial for the CJP to handle.
Only recently, the CJP issued a Suo Motu notice on the construction of wedding halls on the Punjab University premises, while he also called out telecom companies for charging too much tax on prepaid mobile bills. Both are issues that need to be resolved, however should they also be the CJP’s responsibility? Every problem that arises is now being referred to the judgement of the Supreme Court, who are only too happy to oblige. Wouldn’t they be better served focusing on the really important issues and leave the rest to the proper authorities concerned?
People argue that by going over the head of the police, the lower courts or other governmental organizations, only serves to undermine them in the eyes of the public and reaffirms the general populace’s mistrust in our justice system. The CJP has also been accused of only focusing on cases that are popular, either on social media or in the news. There are many more Khadijas and Shahzebs in Pakistan, with the majority still awaiting justice, yet none of them have been offered the same opportunity.
This is not to take away from the fact that these people do deserve justice. But solving a few cases will not solve the overarching problem. In Khadija’s case, if the police had gathered all the necessary evidence on time, and if the lower courts had ignored the fact that her attacker was the son of a prominent lawyer himself, then perhaps the judgement in the case would not have required the intervention of the Supreme Court. However, our justice system is quite flawed, as many unfortunate people have come to realize through practice, and it is that system that needs to be changed from top to bottom before any real progress can be made.
The Supreme Court has undoubtedly empowered certain sectors of society and given a voice to those that otherwise might never have made themselves heard. But the truly long term solution to all these issues would be to improve the conditions of the lower courts, and to do a comprehensive investigation into the quality of judges being employed by them, as well as formulate a transparent process for hiring new and competent judges. The CJP could also direct the government to design new police reforms that ensure proper protocols for the investigation of cases, and the handling of evidence. Furthermore, people working for the government or judiciary should be investigated and reprimanded if they use their power or contacts to influence court cases, or to harass the opposing side.
If the CJP turns his focus on reforming Pakistan’s justice system with some of the steps outlined above, then perhaps there is some hope that people like Khadija, Mukhtaran Mai and the countless others who have suffered in silence can finally unshackle themselves, and receive the justice they deserve, without having to go all the way to Supreme Court to get it. By improving the whole system, the CJP can safeguard the rights of the disenfranchised for many more years to come, and leave Pakistan with a lasting memory.