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Can Supreme Court Rule on Speaker’s Decision on Money Bills? Experts Weigh In

With the ‘money Bill’ controversy rising to the fore again, parliamentarians and jurists differ on whether the Supreme Court can question the speaker’s decisions.

Chief Justice of India Khehar and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. Credit: PTI

Chief Justice of India J.S. Khehar and Lok Sabha Speaker Sumitra Mahajan. Credit: PTI

The ‘money Bill‘ controversy has come to the fore once again, given the government’s actions in the current Budget session of parliament.

Over 175 eminent persons, including Fali Nariman, Prabhat Patnaik and Aruna Roy, have written to Vice President Hamid Ansari, criticising the government’s move to classify the finance Bill as a money Bill.

The signatories had accused the government of continuing the abuse of process where vital debates on the controversial Aadhaar Bill, 2016 were avoided by tabling it as a ‘money Bill’.

In this backdrop, parliamentarians and jurists have expressed divergent opinions on whether the courts can interpret the actions of a Lok Sabha speaker, such as categorising a Bill as a ‘money Bill’.

Former speaker Somnath Chatterjee, who is an eminent jurist, insists that the decision of the presiding officer is final and cannot be interpreted by the courts.

“So far as rules relating to procedure of the House, regularities and irregularities in the House, decision of the speaker is final. It cannot be interpreted by the courts”, he told The Wire.

Chatterjee, who as speaker had stoutly resisted the judiciary’s attempts to encroach on the legislature’s powers, feels the“speaker has to take a decision whether a Bill is a money Bill or not. [The] speaker’s decision is final.”

‘To my mind, if the courts are allowed to interpret … the very position and authority of the speaker will be seriously jeopardised. Then every ruling and every decision of the speaker will be subject to the decision of the courts.Whole premise of the constitution as envisaged will be seriously jeopardised,” he said.

Former secretary general of the Lok Sabha S. Bala Shekhar concurs with Chatterjee.

“The House can devise its own rules of procedure. [The] speaker is the custodian of all rules of procedure and he/she is the final interpreter of the rules. Whatever may be the ruling, it cannot be looked into by a court of law. There have been specific provisions …that courts will not go into procedural issues, whether it is passing of a bill or any resolution or motion,” Shekhar said.

He added, “Similarly, [the] judiciary cannot discuss judicial procedures. It cannot interfere. [The] judiciary has been given independence. The legislature has been given independence. Both cannot interfere in each other’s functioning as per [the] constitutional scheme of things. Whatever the decision of the Speaker, it cannot be questioned in a court of law.”

“Only under the Anti-Defection law, [the] speaker has been treated as a quasi-judicial authority and whatever decision in this regard can be challenged,” Shekhar insisted.

However, former Lok Sabha secretary general P. D. T. Achary disagrees.

“Whatever happens in the Lok Sabha is not subject to judicial review. The House has immunity…Nobody can challenge in court proceedings of the House on the grounds that there are procedural irregularities.”

“If speaker does not take a decision according to constitutional provisions, it can be challenged. Naturally it can be challenged,” Achary said when asked about the Supreme Court challenging the speaker’s decision to declare the Aadhaar Bill a money Bill.

Besides, he added, “a person expelled from the House without following proper procedure or without being given an opportunity to defend himself, is a fit case for judicial intervention. There may be such other cases, but in general the constitution does not allow for challenging the procedure of the House or Speaker’s decision in a court of law.”

“Apart from procedural irregularities, there can be other grounds on which the speaker’s decision can be challenged,” he said noting that the SC has upheld this opinion in one or even two judgments.

Striking a similar note, senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan said the Supreme Court cannot go into the proceedings of the House.

Noting that the court “normally does not interpret the decision of the speaker except when fundamental rights of the people are affected,” Bhushan insisted that the “money Bill is a matter clearly having legal implications and therefore it can be challenged.”

Another senior advocate of the Supreme Court, Sanjay Hegde, recalled that the court’s 2014 judgement in the UP Lokayukta case had held that the speaker’s ruling declaring a Bill to be a money Bill could not be challenged and one had to accept the speaker’s decision.

Noting that it is “difficult” to invalidate the speaker’s decision on procedural grounds, he, however, said there are more substantial grounds such as the violation of fundamental rights including right to privacy.

The challenge on the grounds of privacy is currently pending before the Supreme Court and has now been placed before a larger bench, Hedge said, making a strong pitch for the Supreme Court to decide the matter expeditiously.

Many have raised the point that India should not delay an unambiguous law to protect citizens’ privacy given the judicial interpretation that privacy is a derivative of fundamental rights.

Even as it acknowledged the authority of the speaker in a parliamentary democracy, the Supreme Court recently said that the court would not hesitate to correct a speaker if he were to say “blue is green”. The court was hearing a PIL filed by Congress leader Jairam Ramesh, who had challenged the speaker’s decision to treat the Aadhaar Bill as a money Bill when the bench stated so. The Bill was passed during the Budget session in 2016 after the lower house overruled the Rajya Sabha’s amendments.

“Yes, we have identified the role and authority of the speaker. But if the speaker says blue is green, we will ask the speaker to say it is blue…that we will set right,” said the bench led by Chief Justice of India J. S. Khehar. The bench, also comprising Justice N. V. Ramana, added: “When we go wrong, larger benches set aside our orders and correct it. So why cannot we do it (vis a vis speaker)?”