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Since Justice Yahya Afridi took oath as the youngest chief justice of Peshawar High Court last month a lot of expectations have been attached to him. Legal circles believe that he is well aware of the problems being faced by the judiciary and could play an effective role in addressing the judiciary-related issues. However, they say that filling judges’ vacancies in the PHC could be a tough task for him.

Becoming the chief justice at the age of 51 and still having a decade to retire as a judge of the high court, Justice Yahya is having much time to formulate a reforms agenda and to implement the same in future. Before his elevation to the bench as an additional judge of the high court on March 15, 2010, Justice Yahya Afridi was one of the leading advocates considered well-versed in the constitutional law. He hails from the Frontier Region of Kohat, thus he has also the distinction of becoming the first chief justice of the high court from the tribal areas.

Before his elevation, he was running a famous law firm, Afridi, Shah & Minallah, which was established in 1997. The distinction of the said firm is that two other associates were the current Lahore High Court Chief Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah, and Islamabad High Court judge Justice Athar Minallah.

One of the challenges faced by the chief justice is filling the vacancies of judges in the high court. Presently, 15 judges, including the chief justice, have been functioning against the sanctioned strength of 20 judges. The senior puisne judge Justice Nisar Hussain Khan is due to retire on Jan 31, 2016 after which the vacant posts will increase to six.

Under Article 175A of the Constitution of Pakistan the Judicial Commission of Pakistan shall nominate one person, for each vacancy of a judge, to the parliamentary committee, which shall send the names confirmed to the prime minister.

For appointment of judges to the high court, the Judicial Commission includes: the Chief Justice of Pakistan; four most senior judges of the Supreme Court; a former chief justice or a former judge of the Supreme Court; federal law minister; attorney general for Pakistan; a senior advocate of the Supreme Court; Chief Justice of the high court concerned; most senior judge of that high court; provincial law minister; and an advocate having not less than 15 years practice in the concerned high court to be nominated by the concerned bar council.

Normally, the chief justice of the concerned high court plays an important role in appointment of judges to the high court. A few weeks ago, the Judicial Commission had nominated only a single name for appointment as judge of the high court, whereas several other names were dropped or deferred. Legal circles believe that it is the prime responsibility of the high court chief justice to recommend such competent persons of integrity, which should not raise any eyebrows. Keeping in view the reputation and integrity enjoyed by Justice Yahya Afridi, first as an advocate and subsequently as a judge of the high court, there are a lot of expectations that he would strive to appoint deserving persons to the high court.

As a first step towards seeking viewpoint of the legal fraternity, a meeting was held on Jan 3 between the chief justice and 56 advocates, including the advocate general, chairman and members of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Bar Council, and presidents of district and tehsil bar associations.

The participants of the meeting put forward their respective suggestions. The bar council’s executive committee chairman, Mohammad Ijaz had suggested that there should be specialised benches at the principal seat of the high court; courts should observe official timings; cause list may be shortened as these are very lengthy; and issue of delay in filing of comments in petition by the respondents, including government, may be addressed.

He also suggested that cases should not be adjourned unnecessarily. He added that many judges of subordinate courts were sitting in retiring rooms for hours and the dates were given by readers of the courts at the choice of litigants.

Advocate General Abdul Lateef Yousafzai assured the meeting that comments would be furnished within 15 days in petitions. Other participants also gave their suggestions related to their respective areas. An important feature of the said meeting was that the participants were also asked to provide a list of lawyers they considered worthy of elevation to the bench. Names of 20 lawyers were noted who received most recommendations.

The chief justice has taken several steps for improving the functioning of judiciary in the province. On Jan 1, he held a meeting with 26 district and sessions judges. In that meeting the chief justice directed that keeping in view the aptitude of additional district and sessions judges in the district they might be assigned criminal and civil work, which would improve disposal of cases; short dates should be given in cases in which the accused are in custody; the performance of judicial officers be checked on weekly basis; district and sessions judges must set targets for all judicial officers in the district; all inquiries must be completed in 30 days; etc.

Subsequently, on Jan 13, the chief justice designated judges of the high court as inspection judges for different districts.

According to the order, Justice Waqar Ahmad Seth is designated as inspection judge for Peshawar; Justice Roohul Amin for Charsadda and Mardan; Justice Syed Afsar shah for ex-cadre courts in the province; Justice Ikramullah Khan for Kohat and Hangu; Justice Qalandar Ali Khan for Abbottabad, Mansehra, Battagram, Haripur, Kohistan and Torghar; Justice Ms Mussarat Hilali for Chitral, Swat and Malakand; Justice Mohammad Ibrahim Khan for Buner, Shangla and Dir; Justice Ishtiaq Ibrahim for Bannu, Karak and Lakki Marwat; and, Justice Mohammad Ayub Khan for DI Khan and Tank. According to data on the high court’s website, by the end of Nov 2016 around 33,554 cases were pending before the high court whereas 18,7042 were pending before the district judiciary in the province.

Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2017