The year 2016 was mostly business as usual for legislative affairs across Pakistan—that is, most of the laws were passed after it had become impossible to avoid passing them. However, there were quite a few new progressive laws that took people by surprise and generated widespread debate and controversy. Moreover, there was hardly any law that could be called retrogressive.
Here’s a look at the outstanding features of laws passed in the capital, provinces and territories in 2016:
For ease of understanding, it is worth recalling that Pakistan currently has eight legislative houses, comprising the National Assembly and Senate at the federal level, the four provincial assemblies, and the two territorial assemblies in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) and Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJK) under direct federal supervision. As a general rule, Parliament makes laws on subjects that require uniformity across the land, such as currency and interprovincial trade, while the regional assemblies legislate on subjects that can be dealt with better at the local level, such as health, education, policing, etc. And if you are looking for the laws, you can find them on the fairly user-friendly websites of these legislative houses that have been maintained over the past few years. The texts are usually uploaded soon after the laws are passed.
The Balochistan Assembly stood out for passing the most inane law of the year. It only passed seven laws, and one of them makes sheesha smoking at any place an offence liable to six months in prison or a fine of Rs5,000 or both
In 2016, Parliament passed 49 laws, including a constitutional amendment, which is more than twice the number of laws passed in 2015 (23) and almost five times the number of laws passed in 2014 (10). While the financial sector appears to be the chief focus of increased legislation in 2016, laws on several other subjects demonstrate a general alertness on the part of Parliament and the relevant bureaucracy towards matters that require legislation.
Punjab remained quite steady with 18 laws in 2016, compared to 15 each in 2015 and 2014. After churning out 41 laws in 2015, Sindh seems to have returned to normality with 22 laws in 2016, which is more consistent with 24 laws passed in 2014. Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa appears to have followed the trend in Sindh by passing 29 laws in 2016 as compared to 40 laws in 2015 and 44 laws in 2014. During the past three years, the KP assembly has been the most productive with 113 laws with parliament coming in second with 82 laws. Balochistan, however, appears to exist in a different country altogether, as it passed only seven laws in 2016, which is down from 19 in 2015 and 28 in 2014. This performance is particularly shocking keeping in view the fact that Balochistan is ruled by the same party that controls the National Assembly and the Punjab.
The GB legislative assembly passed only eight laws in 2016 which is still three more than in 2015 and five more than that in 2014.
The information available on the website of the legislative assembly of Azad Jammu and Kashmir is rather doubtful as, firstly, it does not offer the texts of laws passed and secondly, it suggests that while 25 laws were passed in 2016 and 41 in 2014, only one law was passed in 2015. Nevertheless, the number for 2016 is in line with the general trend.
In June 2016, Parliament passed the 22nd Amendment to the Constitution, primarily to allow retired senior civil servants and technocrats who are not more than 68 years of age to be appointed Chief Election Commissioner. Previously, only judges from the superior judiciary were qualified.
Parliament’s crowning achievement was, however, the passage of the Prevention of Electronic Crimes Act in August, to extend the reach of the criminal justice system to the cyber sphere, including cyber-terrorism, online hate speech, electronic forgery and fraud, child pornography (also made punishable under the Penal Code though an amending act passed earlier in March 2016), cyber stalking, spamming, spoofing, etc. The Federal Investigation Agency (FIA) is the enforcement agency under this law.
In line with Nawaz-League’s gradual shift to liberalism, a joint session of Parliament in October passed two bills, amending the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code to plug loopholes in the prosecution of the offences of rape and honour killing. Among other things, the anti-rape bill requires tougher punishments, DNA testing of the victim and the accused, and an in camera trial. The anti-honour killing bill, on the other hand, makes it mandatory for the court to punish a person convicted of honour killing regardless of any compromise reached between the convict and the heirs of the victim.
In February, in line with provincial trends, Parliament fixed the minimum wage of unskilled workers in all industrial establishments at Rs13,000 per month with effect from July 1, 2015. It is heartening to note that the minimum wage has increased consistently every year since 2010 when it stood at Rs8,000 per month.
Other notable laws include the Pakistan Halal Authority Act to establish an authority for the development of halal standards and certifications within the federal jurisdiction, enacted in February; the Futures Market Act to replace the Securities and Exchange Ordinance 1969 for regulation of trade in futures contracts, enacted in April; the Deposit Protection Corporation Act to establish a corporation as a subsidiary of the State Bank of Pakistan for the protection of small depositors in August; and the amendment to the Civil Procedure Code to allow for filing of a suit for the declaration and injunction against public nuisance with the leave of the court instead of the consent of the Advocate General, enacted towards the tail end of November.
By far the most controversial law passed this year by any legislature in Pakistan was Punjab’s Protection of Women against Violence Act in February 2016. What irked Punjabi men the most was that, under the law, the court can order the aggressor in cases of grave violence to wear ankle or wrist bracelets with GPS trackers or to even move out of the house
Provinces and territories
By far the most controversial law passed this year by any legislature in Pakistan was Punjab’s Protection of Women against Violence Act in February 2016. This law is aimed at curbing domestic violence against women through a range of physical and financial protective court orders, by setting up protections centres and shelter homes, and appointing women protection officers in every district. What irked Punjabi men the most was that, under the law, the court can order the aggressor in cases of grave violence to wear ankle or wrist bracelets with GPS trackers or to even move out of the house.
Credit for the most forward-thinking law also goes to the Punjab with its Safe Cities Authority Act also passed in February. The law aims to establish an authority for the “construction, development and maintenance of a city-wide integrated command, control and communications (IC3) system in the major cities of the Punjab in order to ensure the safety and security of the people.”
Another law that touched a raw nerve was Sindh’s Criminal Law (Protection of Minorities) Bill passed in November. The law prescribes five years in prison for anyone who forces another to adopt another religion. However, in response to protests from religious parties, the ruling PPP government has capitulated and agreed to review certain clauses. The Sindh Assembly also made the news in April 2016 by passing the first law in Pakistan to recognize and register Hindu marriages, compelling the other three provinces to request parliament to frame a uniform law for them. Accordingly, the National Assembly passed a much more comprehensive law in September 2016 and it is currently pending in the Senate.
KP stood out for passing the Prevention of Conflict of Interest Act in August to establish a commission for the development and enforcement of principles of conflict of interest between private interests and public duties of public office holders, and the Whistleblower Protection and Vigilance Commission Act in September to enable, protect and reward the citizens of KP who make public interest disclosures relating to illegal and corrupt practices.
The Balochistan Assembly stood out for passing the most inane law of the year. It only passed seven laws, and one of them makes sheesha smoking at any place an offence liable to six months in prison or a fine of Rs5,000 or both. The law was apparently passed under pressure of the Supreme Court that has been hearing a suo moto case against sheesha cafes since 2006 and has forced all provincial governments to ban the hubble bubble in public places under their ordinary police powers.
The GB legislative assembly took the lead where all other legislatures have so far failed: it outlawed corporal punishment of children by family members and others. The GB law defines corporal punishment as “hitting… however light it may be”, puts it outside the scope of Section 89 of the Penal Code (which permits harm short of grievous hurt to a child under twelve by a person in lawful charge in good faith for the benefit of the child), and specifies disciplinary actions against perpetrators in educational, care and penal institutions.
The texts of the AJK laws are not available on their website but the AJK Cross LOC Travel and Trade Authority Act 2016 seemed like an interesting development.
Otherwise, most of the laws passed in the provinces and territories were designed either to complement federal legislation, to catch up with other provinces, or to make necessary amendments to laws already in force.
Dynamics and trends
The choice and timing of the enactments by different legislative houses in 2016 raise some policy questions. For example:
In January, Balochistan passed its Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act, adopting the 2010 federal law on the subject post-18th Amendment, as was done by Punjab in 2013 and AJK in 2014. (Apparently Sindh, KP and GB continue to operate under federal law. However, only the federal government, Punjab, and Sindh have functional ombudsman’s offices under the workplace harassment laws while KP, Balochistan, GB and AJK have yet to appoint ombudspersons).
In January and February, AJK and Balochistan passed new laws to regulate sound systems on the lines of similar laws passed by Sindh and Punjab in 2015. The novelty of these laws lies in empowering station house officers to inspect “every place of worship” in their area and maintain records thereof (KP and GB yet to follow).
In April, Balochistan passed its Witness Protection Act on the lines of the 2013 Sindh law on the same subject (other legislative houses yet to follow).
In October, Sindh and KP passed laws to establish their own mass transit authorities on the lines of the Punjab Mass Transit Authority Act 2015 (Balochistan, GB, and AJK yet to follow).
In December, Punjab seconded the federal law passed in February and promulgated a law to establish its own “Halal Development Agency” within the provincial jurisdiction (other legislative houses yet to follow).
Here is to hoping that 2017 will speed up and expand the progressive legislative trends witnessed in 2016.
The author is a lawyer based in Lahore