Model civil courts

June 26, 2019

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RATHER than dispense justice, Pakistan’s leaden-footed judicial system tends to prolong the agony of litigants and accused alike. Legal safeguards to ensure the rights of both parties, taken for granted in more developed countries, are virtually absent. There are around 2m cases pending before various courts in the country. Model criminal trial courts recently set up on the directions of the National Judicial Policy Making Committee have been an effort to jump-start the process. According to a report released a few days ago, the 110 model courts across the country have in two and a half months decided 5,647 long-pending murder and narcotics cases. The outcome has encouraged the NJPMC in a meeting on Monday to propose the establishment of model trial magistrate courts and model civil appellate courts in all the districts. No adjournments will be permitted in the MCACs, and verdicts are to be announced within three days after conclusion of the proceedings.

Given it takes between four to five years for criminal cases to be decided while the model courts complete the process in three months, the initiative has the potential to overhaul the legal system. It is wholly appropriate that pending civil cases too are to be brought gradually under the purview of the model courts. According to a study of lower courts in Punjab, civil cases on average require 58 hearings over a period of about 37 months from the time of filing until the verdict is given. For most people therefore, litigation is prohibitively expensive, and expedited hearings are the obvious solution. It seems incomprehensible that there has been considerable resistance to the model courts among sections of the legal community; one would imagine that some judges also have reservations. But perhaps this is not surprising: the workings of the model courts threaten to upend the culture of endless adjournments that is a feature of the legal system which compounds the backlog. Only by breaking this vicious cycle can the apex court effect a change in the modus operandi.

According to a study conducted by the Supreme Court a couple of years ago, it can take 25 years for a case to wind its way through the courts before it is finally disposed of. Even then, procedural and evidential problems result in many unsafe convictions. Between 2010 and 2018, the Supreme Court overturned death sentences in no less than 78pc of the 310 appeal cases that came before it during this period. Ironically, it is the very lack of a viable justice system that has made the concept of ‘speedy justice’ so seductive that far too often the state — and the public — has glossed over an individual’s right to fair trial. One hopes the model courts do not lose sight of this historical context. Justice, and not swift disposal of a case, is the objective.

Published in Dawn, June 26th, 2019