The power of suo motu

Published: May 1, 2012

The writer is a Barrister-at-Law and practises in Islamabad

Suo-motu actions taken by the superior courts in the past few years have both enthralled the general public and kept the activist judiciary active. A suo-motu action is when, instead of parties bringing a case or controversy to the courts, the court takes cognisance of it itself and commences proceedings.

While courts in Pakistan certainly do have the power to initiate suo-motu actions, it is not an unbridled power. A line needs to be drawn to decide which cases fall under suo-motu jurisdiction and which are beyond it. As a common law-based country, Pakistan has an adversarial court structure. This contrasts with an inquisitorial system, which is in vogue over much of continental Europe, whereby the court is an active participant whose role is to discover the truth independently of the parties’ claims.

A perusal of suo-motu actions shows that the courts are drifting beyond the interpretation of law as is their strict constitutional limit. A large number of suo-motu actions came in for criticism from many quarters for complicating the administrative functions as well as creating unpredictability.

Suo-motu actions take place all over the common law world. This has been called by one observer as a unique feature of the post-1947 jurisprudence in South Asia, although the Nigerian Supreme Court held that it, too, had the power to exercise suo-motu jurisdiction. Bangladeshi Courts also have such a power although their usage of it has been far less than elsewhere in South Asia.

In other parts of the Commonwealth, the situation is quite different. In Canada, the courts of various provinces are forbidden from taking such notice unless expressly permitted by a statute, which delineates the scope and extent of the power. Furthermore, there is no recently reported case where an action was taken without a formal petition having been filed. In Australia, South Africa and the Caribbean, suo-motu action of the type practised in South Asia is unknown, although one South African report cited the Indian experience with suo motu favourably.

In the United States, the Constitution by virtue of Article III Section 2 Clause 1 allows the courts to take cognisance of a case only if there is a “case or controversy” involved. This has been interpreted to mean that the US Judiciary will not take up cases which are theoretical, unripe, advisory or where the matter has become moot. The Indian courts have long taken the lead in suo-motu cases, both in number and in scope.

It can be argued that such restraint is possible only in a mature democracy where the rule of law is accepted and there is public confidence in the abilities of the administrative and executive bodies. In less developed countries, such as those in South Asia, such ‘splendid isolation’ is untenable. It is certainly true that South Asian countries have a far lower rate of human development and institutional integrity than those in the West. Yet, it would be true to say that democratic institutions require time to mature. In a democracy, almost all law-making involves compromises and it is unlikely that the institutions can in fact mature if they are constantly undercut by the judicial organs of the state.

Suo motu, for better or for worse, is here to stay. What is necessary, however, is for the courts to develop a proper framework for its scope and execution, which has until now been lacking. Without that, it leads to uncertainty and unpredictability about a court’s actions and as one American judge once said, “liberty finds no refuge in unpredictability”.

Published in The Express Tribune, May 1st, 2012.

Reader Comments (8)

  • Mirza
    May 1, 2012 - 3:21AM

    Thanks for a nicely balanced Op Ed. Is there a world record in taking Suo Motu? The number of such cases in Pakistan by the current PCO CJ should be more than all combined in the history of not just Pakistan but all of South Asian S. Courts. In most countries the SC only act as the final appeal court not a low trial court.

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  • American Desi
    May 1, 2012 - 6:57AM

    International norms are not applicable to Pakistan, where the ever vigilant SC is watchful of who is carrying how much alcohol and at the same time totally blind, deaf and sometimes even complicit on atrocities committed on minorities of different shades and women! All these Judges who have been sitting on judicial high horses have time and again legitimized the sabotage of democracy by the military establishment or their proxies! What a shame?!

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  • hussain ifzal
    May 1, 2012 - 9:02AM

    The line is clearly drawn.The P.C.O. C.J. takes Sou Motu notice only when a member of P.P.P.is on the recieving end.

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  • Farooq Bashir Butt M.Phil(Pharmacy),MBA,LLB
    May 1, 2012 - 11:36AM

    Well balanced article and Pakistan needs a judicious use of Suo motu power by courts

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  • Imran
    May 1, 2012 - 1:59PM

    Very well written article……congrts……. I am happy that still there are people in Pak who thinks positively.

    I request every one to raise voice for PPP against the continued victimization by anti PPP (Pro N League) courts. PPP is a federal party, if PPP dies Pakistan will also die.

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  • A Peshawary
    May 1, 2012 - 4:50PM

    This article should not be taken as a PPP centric though our recent judicial activism is tinted towards the same. It may be considered as a balanced writing in right direction. It is a good academic effort, but; will it impact the people who matter?

    A Peshawary

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  • Tahir Younus
    May 1, 2012 - 5:55PM

    A framework is very much necessary, because in country like ours, we cannot have faith in individuals all the time. Moreover, predictability and certainty are two features of law that could not be sacrificed at the alter of populism. Having said that, a strong independent organ for accountability of powerful people/class is very much necessary. Our pro-democracy intellectuals and activists criticise, sometimes bash, judiciary for its active pursuit to accountability, but the do not press the so called democratic forces for establishment of an independent organ for accountability. Here lies the tragedy. Don’t allow the looters to put on the garb of public mandate. It will ultimately harm the fragile democracy in this country. The day an independent and reliable accountability organ starts working, the advices made to the Supreme Court will become more relevant and worth considering.

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  • smj
    May 1, 2012 - 7:08PM

    When Shias gets killed in karachi, balochistan and gilgit/baltistan and jhang, no Sou Moto
    When Waheeda Shah slapped , Chief Justice of Pakistan takes notice.

    When Nawaz Shareef go to court, his ‘saza yafta’ labeled get washed away after 10 years in matter of days and everyone forgot what he did to Sajaad Ali Shah, then CJ of Pakistan.
    When Geelani go to court he gets sentenced that left the country hanging and ultimately lead to Army intervention.

    Ap samhaj to gaey hu gay :)

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