GEORGE Washington in a letter to Edmund Randolph in 1789 wrote that “the administration of justice is the firmest pillar of government”, but the abominable scenes witnessed recently at the Lahore High Court raise serious questions about our firmest pillar. Protesters attempted to break down the gates of the hallowed building while chanting slogans. The court corridors which are usually abuzz with lawyers and litigants gave a deserted look as the smell of tear gas hung around.
Without going into the merits of the order of the full bench which has directed an elected president of a bar association to be arrested, the fundamental question is what should be the role and response of us lawyers?
Are we right in taking out processions, blocking roads, flexing our muscles in front of law-enforcement personnel, or should we appear before the court to defend the allegations against a brother lawyer, and constitute a proper legal defence?
Are lawyers right in flexing their muscles?
There may be follies in our legal system but, however slow, it is still alleviating the miseries of the masses. Our actions today are tantamount to bringing down a system no matter how arcane it may appear. This is still the only legal system known to us and is the only rampart which stands between semblance and total anarchy. Black coats as officers of the law are also custodians of our legal inheritance. Lawyers stand tall here because the same land has produced glittering gems like Allama Mohammed Iqbal and Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah. It has been over 70 years since he last appeared in the Bombay High Court but even today the Bombay High Court Bar reveres Barrister Jinnah.
My family has the unique distinction of being in the legal profession for the last four generations; since 1889 the legal profession has been our calling, in fact, I was instructed that law is not merely a vocation, it’s a way of life. In 1947, after migrating from Patiala, my grandfather re-established his law offices and residence adjacent to the high court at Fane Road. While at school, I witnessed Mr Z.A. Bhutto’s murder trial and the umpteen political demonstrations. These sometimes turned violent but never did one see people attempting to ransack the Lahore High Court.
Mind you, the boundary wall at that time was not more than a mere couple of feet high. But what is witnessed now at the court shakes one to the core and makes us hang our heads in shame.
As lawyers, it is our fundamental duty to uphold the law and behave in a manner befitting an educated segment of society. I remember as a child accompanying my father and grandfather to various courts all over Punjab where common folk would enter the courtroom after taking off their shoes. This was not because of any instruction but due purely to the respect and awe the courts commanded at that time.
The honourable high court is also required to examine how in the span of just a few decades judicial respect has eroded to such an extent that today lawyers are standing at its threshold but not out of respect. As rightly said by William Shakespeare, “Justice always whirls in equal measure”.
Asma Jahangir, former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association, says that no one can condone such conduct on the part of members of the bar but that the judges have emboldened such egregious conduct by non-action when similar incidents were taking place at the level of the subordinate judiciary and even when lawyers were being roughed up in court; she also complained of what was perceived as the unbecoming attitude of some judges.
Veteran lawyer Shazib Masud states that only a handful of lawyers with an interest in bar politics support and fan this sort of rowdy behaviour. If today a lawyer refuses to appear in court pursuant to a contempt notice then this will spell the death knell of our judicial system as tomorrow all and sundry would defy such notices.
One may have views and opinions about the incident and perhaps matters could have been handled differently at Multan where the issue originated, but no one can plausibly defend the abhorrent acts of violence against an institution which we all revere.
No one is bigger than the institution. When the highest elected officials of the land can appear in court, why not members of the bar? For lawyers, the court is their strength and if the judiciary is mocked and efforts are made to place it on a lower pedestal, the ultimate sufferer would be the legal community as all our strength and capability flow from the judicial system and its ability to deliver justice.
The writer is a Lahore-based advocate of the Supreme Court.
Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2017