LAHORE: The Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO) organised a conference, titled ‘Rule of Law: Access to Justice and Citizen Inclusion’, where stakeholders and experts shared their opinions and suggestions on and access to justice.

Pakistan ranked 81 out of 113 countries on the World Justice Project Report 2016 on the Rule of Law Index. This low ranking is a serious issue that must be addressed; ultimately it translates into the fact that many vulnerable and marginalised people in the country, including women and minorities -- especially those from the lowest socioeconomic classes and rural areas, are in fact unable to get justice, access to legal aid and are not even aware of their legal rights.

With the support of Oxfam International, a programme has been implemented since 2017 across the country, called ‘Improved Access to Fair, Legitimate and Effective Justice in Pakistan’, which has attempted to increase access to justice for citizens.

Bushra Qamar, chairperson of the Punjab Bar Council, said changes to the current scenario and legitimate access to justice could only happen when everyone held themselves accountable, not only abiding by laws but also claiming and exercising their rights.

Advocate Saroop Ijaz spoke about equitable access to justice. “We as a state have failed at supremacy and equality of law and so we need to build the public’s trust in justice institutions by giving them the right to question the legitimacy of institutions without any repercussions by the government in an authoritarian role,” he added.

Fauzia Viqar, chairperson of the Punjab Commission On the Status of Women (PCSW), reiterated that the social status of and discrimination against women was a major barrier to women’s access to justice. “The fact that there are very few women being represented in law enforcement institutions is also another reason why this access to justice is not open,” she pointed out.

She added that pendency required procedural changes, not a change in laws by restricting adjournments to time limitations.

“Help lines can be effective in ensuring justice for women victims of violence,” she further said. “But the role of police also needs to be examined where access to justice is concerned. It should also be noted that while law and justice committees exist, the public still needs to access them for legal aid on district level. Provincial Justice Forum of the government can take up any relevant and important issues against marginalised citizens. Cybercrimes are an emerging issue against women. To tackle this, the PCSW has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Federal Investigation Agency to provide them support for justice.”

Peter Jacob, executive director at the Centre for Social Justice, said that good legislation always mentioned legitimate rights of minorities, but unfortunately in Pakistan the Constitution, the curriculum and societal attitudes all reinforced injustice against minorities. However, he said such consultations were an encouraging step towards progression.

Parliamentary Affairs Director General Inayatullah Haq said that there were more than 570 laws in Punjab, but most of the legislation was not inclusive and based on larger public interest.

“The truth is that parliamentary committee meetings do not include stakeholders and public participation as per law. Many of the laws in Punjab also need to be updated to be practically useful to citizens,” he added.

Human rights activist Neelum Hussain said that justice should be neutral and ethical, but this required constraints on part of the government to promote participatory democracy.

“Laws also guide our behavior, and in some instances have ended up promoting injustice because of their incorrect use,” she said referring to the honour killing bill, which had always been impeded by the blood money law, and the blasphemy law that produced a less tolerant society with a right to wrongly persecute minorities.

Statistically in Pakistan, less than one per cent of the people are in the police and less than 10pc in court. In addition to the judiciary and provincial government, the local government can also have a powerful role in citizens’ access to justice.

Published in Dawn, July 07th, 2018

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