The Contempt of Parliament Bill has passed through the Senate on Monday, going through the Senate after having earlier been passed by the National As. Fortunately, it is not going to be used to stifle criticism of Parliament, but its provisions do allow a bicameral Contempt Committee to impose a years’ imprisonment on contemnors, as well as fine them Rs one million. The need for the Act arose because of the confrontation between Parliament and the Supreme Court, with the Supreme Court threatening to take action by issuing contempt notices to parliamentarians who had criticized the Supreme Court. Contempt of Parliament has been defined as refusal, or causing refusal, of any person, from appearing before parliamentary committees, or bringing documents before them. At stake is the desire of the Public Accounts Committee to have the Supreme Court present to it its financial records, and the Supreme Court’s insistence that it was a separate branch of government and thus not obliged to appear before any parliamentary committee. The Supreme Court has stayed a bill changing the Supreme Court procedure for constituting benches in suo motu cases, but did not carry out any contempt proceedings for failure to implement its orders for elections within the constitutionally mandated 90 days.
The contempt power seems a good one to those that do not have it. All courts have this power, but of late it seems to be extending itself. It is a coincidence that only a day after the law was passed, the Election Commission of Pakistan postponed to August 2 the indictment of PTI Chairman Imran Khan, after his personal appearance made the arrest warrants issued for him infructuous. However, the ECP had never before been thought of as a body which could punish contempt of itself, expressed by speech criticizing, in this case, the Chief Election Commissioner. That Parliament has not arrogated such a right to itself is wellcome, but who is to say that it will not in future, by a small addition to the present Act.
That Act has not become a law yet, and now all eyes are on President Arif Alvi, whose assent is needed for it to become law. However, at most he can delay it by refusing assent. Even without any delay on his part, there is a very limited time for Parliament to act before its inevitable dissolution leads to the automatic dissolution of all committees, including the proposed Contempt Committee. The Act will only be useful for future Parliaments.