ISLAMABAD           -       The Islamabad High Court (IHC) on Friday rejected a petition by oil marketing companies (OMCs) against the newly formed fuel crisis committee.

A single bench of IHC comprising Chief Justice of IHC Justice Athar Minallah announced the verdict which it had reserved after hearing the arguments of all the parties in the petition challenging the fuel crisis committee and the ongoing crackdown against the OMCs allegedly responsible for a recent fuel crisis.

Justice Athar noted in his verdict that in case of the petitions in hand, a mere fact-finding inquiry/probe is being conducted by the concerned executive authorities to identify the factors which have led to acute fuel shortages and exposed the general public to extreme inconvenience and hardship. He added that the petitioner companies definitely have a pivotal role in ensuring uninterrupted fuel supply to the general public. It cannot be ruled out that hoarding or black marketing could be one of the factors that may have led to the crisis of fuel shortages.

The IHC CJ maintained, “The executive authorities in the circumstances were indeed justified to take timely measures including initiation of a probe/inquiry in order to ascertain the factors that had led to the unprecedented crisis causing extreme hardship and inconvenience to the general public.”

According to the court order, there is no force in the argument of one of the learned counsels that probe/inquiry could only have been conducted under the Pakistan Commission of Inquiries Act, 2017. Accepting this argument will amount to denying to the executive branch of the state its prerogative to inquire or probe into matters of public importance in any manner as it deems appropriate.

“Conducting an inquiry or probe is definitely not an adverse action nor can by any stretch of the imagination amount to prejudicing the rights of those who may be called upon to give information. The constitution of a commission under the Act of 2017 is one of the many modes available to the executive authorities to inquire or probe into a matter of public importance. It is inherent in the functions/obligations and duties assigned to the executive authorities to probe or inquire into any matter of public importance which falls within its exclusive domain, said the court.

The IHC bench continued that taking away this prerogative will cripple the functioning of the Executive branch. The executive authorities will not be able to function nor discharge their obligations and duties if they are denied the liberty to inquire or probe matters in any manner, they deem appropriate provided the proceedings are conducted in accordance with law and without infringing fundamental rights guaranteed under the Constitution.

It maintained, “There is no bar on the executive authorities to probe or inquire into the causes that had led to the crisis of fuel shortages and to identify and proceed against the persons responsible or who may have contributing thereto merely because an entity has been licensed by the regulator under the Ordinance of 2002. No detrimental action has been taken against the petitioner companies nor its officials/employees as yet so as to give rise to a grievance, which may be justiciable under Article 199 of the Constitution by way of judicial review.”

Justice Athar said that keeping in view the nature of the crisis and its public importance, judicial restraint ought to be exercised because intervention by this Court in any manner may impede or interfere with the functions, duties and obligations of the executive authorities having consequences for the general public.”

He added, “Nonetheless, this Court expects that the executive authorities while conducting the probe/inquiry will proceed strictly in accordance with law, in a fair and transparent manner and avoid causing unnecessary harassment to the officials/employees of the petitioner companies. This Court further expects that the authorities will have regard to the principles of fair trial and refrain from making statements that could prejudice the rights of the petitioner companies. This Court also expects from the petitioner companies to co-operate in the matter so that the inquiry/probe could be concluded at the earliest.”

The bench noted that it is an admitted position that after an announcement was made regarding reduction of prices there was a sudden acute shortage of fuel/petroleum products throughout the country and which persists in some parts till today. The consumers, particularly the general public have been severely affected and their constitutionally guaranteed fundamental rights have been prejudiced.

It maintained, “There is also no cavil to the proposition that the Executive branch of the State is responsible as well as answerable to the people for such a crisis. It was, therefore, inevitable that the Executive branch of the State should have responded diligently in order to ensure uninterrupted supply and availability of fuel/ petroleum products to the general public at the notified reduced prices.”

It pointed that the sudden disappearance of fuel from the market and queuing up of agitating consumers at the gas stations was indeed a serious concern for the executive authorities. Pursuant to their obligations, the executive authorities took measures to alleviate the hardship caused to the general public throughout the country and constitution of the impugned committee was a part thereof.

“Such a response was not only expected from the executive but it was inherent in its assigned role contemplated under the constitutional scheme. Moreover, the scope of the committee is to the extent of placing its fact-finding report before the competent forum for consideration. The latter will then decide how to proceed further and the actions required to be taken in accordance with law. The constitution of a committee for the purposes of discovering the facts and collation thereof can by no stretch of the imagination be treated as prejudicial to the rights of the petitioner companies,” maintained the IHC bench.

The court made it clear that it is obvious that exercising judicial restraint in matters which fall within the exclusive domain of the Executive and for which the latter is answerable to the people of Pakistan is inherent in the scheme of the Constitution. “We as Judges are not representatives of the people nor accountable for those functions that fall within the exclusive jurisdiction and domain of the Executive branch of the State. In such matters intervention would only be justified if an aggrieved petitioner can demonstrably show violation of constitutionally guaranteed rights, said Justice Athar.

He added that moreover, the interests of the public at large will prevail over individual rights or interests. The Executive is answerable to the people for performance of its duties and functions assigned under the scheme of the Constitution and, therefore, it should be free from unnecessary interference and intrusions thus warranting exercise of judicial restraint