LAHORE - The government is so busy setting up energy projects with China’s support, and combating terrorism with the help of army that it forgot to enact into law within the prescribed time an ordinance which had been promulgated to redress grievances of the citizens and gas companies. Or, perhaps, in the absence of Zahid Hamid, who has since resigned as minister after being named as an abettor in the high treason case against Gen (r) Pervez Musharraf, there was no one in the law ministry to keep an eye on the legal calendar.

Under The Gas (theft control and recovery) Ordinance 2014, gas courts were set up to hear various matters, including claims, fine, penalty or sum due or matter in dispute that does not exceed Rs 5 million. Other than these specific cases fall under the jurisdiction of the Lahore High Court.  However, a judge of the LHC pointed out recently that the ordinance had expired after completing its constitutional life and, now, courts working under it had ceased to exist. With this judgment, the gas consumers are left with no option but to run from pillar to post to have their bills-related grievances redressed. Already, the federal ombudsman has been restrained from dealing with such cases.  This means, a gas consumer who receives an inflated gas bill or has any other complaint against the company will have to go through the same cumbersome procedures or grease the relevant palms to have the complaints redressed.

The fact about the expiration of the ordinance came to light when arguments were being made by both sides – petitioners and defendants- in a court about gas theft, recovery and other matters related to fines and penalties.

The petitioners pleaded that the court should first determine whether the Ordinance is still a valid law or whether it stands repealed or if it has been enacted as an Act of the Parliament.

A law officer on behalf of the federal government produced a copy of the report of the Standing Committee of the Senate on Petroleum and Natural Resources.  The Committee, he said, had recommended that the Ordinance be passed into law.  

On May 14, 2014, the National Assembly extended the Ordinance for a period of 120 days. However, on completion of 120 days, the Ordinance stood repealed, he said. After hearing both sides, the court held that the Ordinance, by its very nature, is a temporary statue which remains in force for a limited period and ceases to operate without repeal if the same is not enacted into law. The judge further observed that the power to promulgate Ordinance is legislative, not executive.

The judge further held that no proceedings could be commenced or continued in the Gas Utility Courts set up by the Ordinance as it did not stay in the field any more.  Thus, any proceedings initiated, commenced or continued will be without lawful authority and unlta-vires of the constitution, he observed.

In another petition, the Lahore High Court also restrained Federal Ombudsman from deciding Utility Bills and held that the ombudsman did not have powers to decide matters of utility bills; rather it could see into the administrative matters. While each state institution will shift the burden of the serious negligence on the other, it's the consumers who have to face the consequences.