IMAGINE children having buried their father in the year 1969. Disputes ensue, resulting in one of them filing a suit in 1978 for the distribution of the assets of the deceased amongst his heirs. Now imagine it is the year 2017; although most of his children are dead, the suit is very much alive, and to the chagrin of the grandchildren, still pending.
The example given above is distressing, even more so because it is a real-case scenario involving real people.
The Sindh High Court in Karachi has what is referred to as ‘pecuniary jurisdiction’. In essence, it means that in civil suits, any case valued at over Rs15 million is to be instituted directly before the high court in Karachi, as opposed to the subordinate courts.
High-stakes civil suits languish in overburdened high courts.
The measure was arguably instituted to give primacy and priority to matters of greater value and significance arising in Karachi, so that they could be heard by a more experienced and able roster of judges at the high court.
However, this pecuniary jurisdiction has not had the desired impact. The Sindh High Court has some 24 judges sitting in Karachi at any given time during most of the year.
Of those, about five hear civil suits that pertain to its pecuniary jurisdiction, whereas up to four judges hear appeals arising from such suits.
On the other hand, the district courts on average have 40 judicial officers per district including magistrates, senior civil judges, additional district judges and the district judge himself. If the five districts of Karachi are combined, an estimated 200-plus judicial officers are currently working in the subordinate courts.
Herein lies the issue. Having such a healthy number of judges in the subordinate courts makes sense, considering that the vast majority of litigants are exposed to the judiciary at the trial level. However, propelling cases valued at over Rs15m to the Sindh High Court in Karachi, where the judges are significantly less in number and severely overburdened, simply does not.
The reason is simple. The high court of any province embodies the appellate process of the judicial set-up, and, therefore, the number of judges at the level reflects such an intention and objective. By burdening the high court with original jurisdiction to hear civil suits, not only is the appellate process adversely affected to the detriment of those who have already endured the gruelling trial and appeals processes before the subordinate courts, but also the limited resources available mean that civil suits are seldom disposed of in a timely fashion.
In the end, sending such cases to the high court is tantamount to sentencing higher-value cases to a slow and debilitating legal process which appears unending, when ironically, the same cases could in all likelihood have been concluded in the subordinate courts within a short span of one to two years.
The arguments in favour of retaining pecuniary jurisdiction revolve around the experience and wisdom of the judges sitting in the high court; the probability of a correct legal decision in a high-stakes case is reason enough to retain it. On the other hand, as already mentioned, there are the debilitating delays in the actual adjudication because there are too few judges dealing with too many cases.
It is also argued that quick disposals in the subordinate courts do not necessarily translate into just disposals. This contention is often made in reference to the inexperience of the judges in the lower courts, and the overall quality of litigation at that level. Once again, the answer lies not in uprooting jurisdiction from the lower courts, but rather in better equipping them.
The long-term solution to this dilemma appears to lie in doing away with pecuniary jurisdiction altogether. In this way, the high court could be relieved of the additional burden, whilst being allowed to decide matters primarily on the appellate side. This would have the effect of speeding up disposal, increasing litigant confidence in the process, and allowing judges to better manage their caseloads.
Additional measures could be taken to enable lower court judges to deal with the additional influx of cases. Ratcheting up the experience requirement for eligibility to a judicial post, an increase in sanctioned posts, compulsory and more rigorous trainings prior to induction and posting, coupled with an increase in salary structures and perks, could go a long way in rectifying the overburdened and lopsided judicial set-up of the province.
Will such measures be taken any time in the near future? Well, your guess is as good as mine. However, without concerted efforts by all concerned, and especially the legal community, such changes seem to be a distant dream.
The writer is a litigation lawyer in Karachi
Published in Dawn, May 7th, 2017