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7 PM |Course correction for the Speaker’s office|6th February 2020

Context: SC ruling on the office of Speaker.

More in news:

  • Recently, the Supreme Court of India while adjudicating upon the matter relating to the disqualification of MLAs in the Manipur Legislative Assembly under the Tenth Schedule in Keisham Meghachandra Singh vs. the Hon’ble Speaker Manipur Legislative Assembly & Ors. made a significant suggestion.
Text Box: Speaker of the State Legislative Assembly:
The Office of the Speaker of Legislative Assembly is a constitutional one. Under Article 178 of the Indian Constitution every Legislative Assembly of a State shall, choose one of its Members as Speaker.
The Speaker has the following powers and duties:
•He maintains order and decorum in the assembly for conducting its business and regulating its proceedings. This is his primary responsibility and he has final power in this regard.
•He is the final interpreter of the provisions of:
(a) the Constitution of India,
(b) the rules of procedure and conduct of business of assembly, and
(c) the legislative precedents, within the assembly.
•He adjourns the assembly or suspends the meeting in the absence of a quorum.
•He does not vote in the first instance. But, he can exercise a casting vote in the case of a tie.
•He can allow a ‘secret’ sitting of the House at the request of the leader of the House.
•He decides whether a bill is a Money Bill or not and his decision on this question is final.
•He decides the questions of disqualification of a member of the assembly, arising on the ground of defection under the provisions of the Tenth Schedule.
•He appoints the chairmen of all the committees of the assembly and supervises their functioning. He himself is the chairman of the Business Advisory Committee, the Rules Committee and the General Purpose Committee.

The Issue:

  • The role of the Speaker in Manipur came under scrutiny recently. The Speaker reserved the ruling regarding applications seeking disqualification of Manipur Forest and Environment Minister Thounaojam Shyamkumar Singh. The Speaker reserved his ruling on the petitions without giving any specific date for pronouncing the judgment and directed both the petitioners and the respondent to submit additional arguments in any in written on or before February 12.
  • Shyamkumar who was elected on Congress ticket in the elections to the state Assembly held in 2017 switched side to BJP soon after the election results were declared and before taking oath as member of the state Assembly. Shyamkumar’s defection to BJP was during the run up to the formation of a new government after the elections with no party secured simple majority to form the next government. His coming to the BJP fold paved the way for formation of BJP-led coalition government in the state with N Biren Singh as chief minister.
  • Many Congress MLAs filed their petitions seeking disqualification of Shyamkumar to the tribunal of the Speaker under the 10th Schedule (Anti-Defection Law) of the Constitution of India. When the Speaker allegedly failed to initiate any step to the petition (the petitions were pending since the early part of 2018), two Congress MLAs knocked at the door of the High Court of Manipur. After a long hearing, the high court disposed off the petitions filed by two Congress MLAs by refusing to pass any order citing shortfalls of its jurisdiction under the Tenth Schedule. 
  • To further note, since the Speaker did not take any action against the erring Congress MLA, allowing the BJP-led coalition government to stand despite violating constitutional norms under the anti-defection law, seven other Congress MLAs in the state publicly joined the BJP without resigning from their MLA posts. The Congress MLAs also filed petitions in the Speaker’s tribunal against these MLAs in November 2018 which were still pending.
  • The Congress MLAs then knocked at the door of the Supreme Court seeking disqualification of the Forest and Environment minister. The Apex Court directed the Speaker of Manipur Legislative Assembly to decide within four weeks regarding the plea of Congress MLAs seeking disqualification of the Forest minister. 

The Supereme Court ruling:

  • The SC in Keisham Meghachandra Singh vs. the Hon’ble Speaker Manipur Legislative Assembly & Ors. ruled that no decision was taken by the Speaker on several applications filed between April and July 2017 under the Tenth Schedule for disqualification of Th Shyamkumar.
  • The Court directed the Speaker to decide the disqualification petition pending before him within four weeks. It further stated that if no decision was forthcoming within that time limit, it would be open to any party to apply to the Supreme Court for further directions/relief in the matter.
  • The Court intervened after two writ petitions in the matter filed before the High Court of Manipur at Imphal could not be decided as the issue of whether a High Court can direct a Speaker to decide a disqualification petition within a certain time-frame was pending before a five-judge bench of the Supreme Court.
  • The Court observed that it was time Parliament did a rethink on whether disqualification petitions ought to be entrusted to a Speaker as a quasi-judicial authority when he continues to belong to a particular political party either de jure or de facto.
  • The Court felt that a permanent tribunal headed by a retired Supreme Court judge, a retired chief justice of a High Court or some other outside independent mechanism should ensure that such disputes are decided both swiftly and impartially.

The Supreme Court ruling in Keisham Meghachandra Singh (supra) highlights two related concerns of delay in decision-making and bias, consequent to the present dispensation under the Tenth Schedule.

The problem of Speakers dithering over cases of disqualification, however, is not of recent origin. It has been addressed in the past in various judgments of the Supreme Court. As far as delays in decision-making by the Speaker are concerned, the Court has made several pertinent observations.

  • In Kihoto Hollohan, clarifying the role of the Speaker as a tribunal under the Tenth Schedule, the Court observed that all tribunals are not courts, though all courts are tribunals. Court means a court of civil judicature and a tribunal is a body which is supposed to decide controversies arising under certain special laws. A tribunal, per se, does not have all the trappings of a court and hence is not expected to observe a strict legal regimen.
  • Similarly, in Jagjit Singh vs State of Haryana & Ors, the Supreme Court held that the proceedings under the Tenth Schedule are not comparable to either a trial in a court of law or departmental proceedings for disciplinary action against an employee. The standard of “reasonable opportunity” is, therefore, not that rigorous. Further, if the view taken by the tribunal is a reasonable one, the Court would decline to strike down an order on the ground that another view is more reasonable. Thus, a proceeding in a case of disqualification under the Tenth Schedule is more in the nature of a summary inquiry and needs to be disposed of expeditiously.
Is there a time limit within which the Presiding Officer has to decide? The law does not specify a time-period for the Presiding Officer to decide on a disqualification plea. Given that courts can intervene only after the Presiding Officer has decided on the matter, the petitioner seeking disqualification has no option but to wait for this decision to be made. Decision of the Presiding Officer is subject to judicial review: The law initially stated that the decision of the Presiding Officer is not subject to judicial review. This condition was struck down by the Supreme Court in 1992, thereby allowing appeals against the Presiding Officer’s decision in the High Court and Supreme Court. However, it held that there may not be any judicial intervention until the Presiding Officer gives his order.    

How the recent ruling will help?

  • The setting up a separate body will help to decide the cases impartially and expeditiously.
  • This may ensure elimination of bias to some extent.
  • It will give teeth to the provisions contained in the Tenth Schedule that are vital in the proper functioning of India’s democracy.
  • Other Options available:
  • The rules framed by Parliament to give effect to the provisions of the Tenth Schedule (by virtue of Paragraph 8) provide an option to the Speaker to refer the petition to the Committee of Privileges for preliminary inquiry. The rule could be modified to make such a reference mandatory.
  • The Speaker may be required to consult the Election Commission before taking a decision, by amending the Tenth Schedule itself. This may take care of individual bias.
  • The Tenth Schedule can be amended, to prescribe a time limit for the presiding officer to take a decision, failing which the application for disqualification would be deemed to have been allowed. 

Global comparison:

  • In Ireland, parliamentary systems close to ours, the position of Speaker is given to someone who has built up credibility by relinquishing his or her political ambitions.
  • In the United Kingdom, the main characteristic of the Speaker of the House of Commons is neutrality. In practice, once elected, the Speaker gives up all partisan affiliation, as in other Parliaments of British tradition, but remains in office until retirement, even though the majority may change. He does not express any political views during the debates (see below) and is an election candidate without any ticket.
  • Only the U.S. with its rigorous separation of powers between the judiciary, executive and legislature, allows the Speaker to openly engage in active politics. Offering future rewards for performance as a Speaker has made the position a stepping stone for political ambition Speaker rulings.
  • Indian speakers are not made members of the Rajya Sabha after they demit office; the British Parliament automatically elevates the Speaker to the House of Lords.

Conclusion:

Parliament should pay heed to the reasoning of the Supreme Court and take steps to strengthen the institution of the Speaker.

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/lead/course-correction-for-the-speakers-office/article30745309.ece

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