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Judicial reform

October 14, 2018

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THE judicial activism of Chief Justice of Pakistan Saqib Nisar can and has divided opinion in independent legal circles, but on occasion the chief justice does speak frankly to his institution in a manner that few other jurists have done. Addressing a Supreme Court Bar Association seminar in Lahore on Friday, Chief Justice Nisar once again spoke plainly about judicial failures, remarking that the legal fraternity, both lawyers and judges, were in part responsible for the endless delays in settling legal disputes in court and calling into question the judicial qualifications and competence of some judges. The searing remarks may not sit well with some members of the judiciary and the legal community, but there is truth in what Chief Justice Nisar has said. Indeed, the myriad failures of the legal system are well known, widely lamented, and have created deep distortions in both state and society. Arguably, judicial reforms must be at the core of across-the-board institutional reforms that are needed in the country. Without a viable, fair and effective judiciary, a modern, tolerant, inclusive and progressive society cannot be established.

The theme of judicial reforms is one that Chief Justice Nisar has frequently dwelled on in public comments during his tenure, but perhaps the chief justice may be the first to acknowledge that it has not resulted in much change as yet in the judiciary, particularly at the lower levels where most of the judicial work ought to be done. The chief justice has approximately three months left in office and he has succeeded in drawing a great deal of national attention to the judicial institution. With a new federal government in office that has sought to place reforms at the centre of its governance agenda, there may be few better opportunities to focus the judiciary’s attention on a reforms agenda that can be taken up by parliament and the executive as necessary. Chief Justice Nisar has himself initiated proceedings to determine the contours and limits of the superior judiciary’s suo motu powers — another essential aspect of judicial reforms. Judicial reforms ought not to be a choice between a top-down or bottom-up approach but a process that addresses shortcomings and deficiencies at every level of the judicial process.

Certainly, as Chief Justice Nisar has publicly recognised, it will not be easy to turn around a moribund judicial institution. If current trends continue, the increase in the population and stagnation in the legal system could combine to drag the standards of justice in the country for the average citizen even lower than the standards of today. The nightmare scenario does not necessarily have to become reality, but it will if corrective action — ie sweeping judicial reforms — are not undertaken soon. The current chief justice has shown a light on where change is needed; will his successors carry forward the mission of judicial reforms?

Published in Dawn, October 14th, 2018