Saving the legal profession

Published December 23, 2019
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

NOTHING surprises you in Pakistan. Nevertheless, the Punjab Institute of Cardiology (PIC) being attacked by a mob of lawyers in Lahore is not only unbelievable but a shameful act which cannot be justified.

Two narratives have emerged to explain this incident. On the one hand, persons of right, left and liberal leanings and even former supporters of the lawyers’ movement have interpreted this mob violence as proving that lawyers have become a mafia or gangsters. On the other, lawyers’ associations and their leadership have taken a much more confusing and contradictory position by condemning the attack on the hospital itself but defending the lawyers involved in the attack on various grounds — namely, that it was a ‘conspiracy’ by outsiders, or that the violent lawyers were both perpetrators of violence and victims of provocation by doctors, or that it was the government’s failure to resolve this conflict between lawyers and doctors.

But both these narratives seem either simplistic or apologetic.

Violent lawyers: Lawyers and their associations have emerged as a very powerful macro actor in Pakistan as a result of the lawyers’ movement from 2007 to 2009. Moreover, such extraordinary power has been accompanied with increased violence by lawyers against civilians, police officers, government officials and judges, including high court judges. The lawyers’ movement thus laid the basis for an extraordinary increase in lawyers’ power and prestige, based on the public legitimacy of their just causes — but it is this very power that has been misused in order to perpetuate violence. There’s nothing surprising about this, because history tells us that great power always coexists with the abuse of it. But this increase in violent lawyers has been made possible because of four critical factors.

By failing to hold those involved in the PIC attack accountable, lawyers risk losing their legitimacy.

Firstly, in all recent major instances of lawyers resorting to violence, lawyers’ associations have not only failed to hold them accountable; instead, they have actually supported this behaviour by providing justifications for their violence. In short, lack of accountability combined with justification of such actions has legitimised and perpetuated this violence.

Secondly, there is an apartheid divide in the legal community — between a small group of elite lawyers who use a complex system of political, social and legal networks to capture the legal market, and the overwhelming majority of lawyers who live in permanent economic and social insecurity. These majoritarian lawyers seek to further their professional interests by relying upon membership of lawyers’ associations and, at times, the threat or use of violence against others, with these associations’ active support. In short, the elite lawyers’ connections and networks are substituted by these majoritarian lawyers with the power of their trade union and its threat of violence.

Thirdly, how can any lawyer with any rudimentary sense of professionalism and legal ethics attack a hospital? Lack of professionalism and lack of ethics are rampant among lawyers. This is because lawyers without professionalism and ethics exist and flourish with the support of lawyers’ associations.

Fourthly, all three of the aforementioned factors are only possible because there is an unwritten consensus among the warring factions of the lawyers’ leadership to sustain this status quo. In the legal community, the politics of status quo trumps the politics of reform.

Unprecedented attack: The repeated occurrence of violence by lawyers cannot explain why such violence became so extreme that it led to an attack on the PIC. No other group except Islamist militants have attacked hospitals. Two critical factors converted this potential of lawyers’ violence into this unprecedented attack.

Firstly, the attack on PIC comes at a time when Punjab has had one of the weakest and most confused provincial governments in its history, with repeated changes being made in the police and civil bureaucracy. In short, a weak and confused government invited and facilitated mob violence. Secondly, the six years preceding this attack have witnessed multiple occasions of mob violence, with active support of powerful state officials, to achieve various goals — eg, the PTI dharna of 2014, or the Tehreek-e-Labbaik Pakistan dharna of 2018. In other words, mob violence has been legitimised by the state itself. Mimicry is a cause of great historical events; the lawyers’ attack on the cardiac hospital is a mere mimicry of recent successful acts of mob violence.

State of denial: The extraordinary power of lawyers and their associations is neither based on coercive power, nor the strength of their members, nor their organisational ability. Rather, post-2007, their extraordinary power is based on public legitimacy, which means the respect and support given by the public to their goals and conduct. Without public legitimacy/support, lawyers are a miniscule number of organised individuals who can be controlled or silenced by a powerful state and powerful vested groups. Lawyers and their leadership should realise that the public holds them primarily responsible for this attack on PIC, and that no one believes their narrative of conspiracy and victimhood. If lawyers and their leadership continue in their state of denial by refusing to categorically condemn and punish those in their community involved in this violence, they will lose their public legitimacy. As a result, this will be the beginning of the end of the extraordinary power enjoyed by lawyers in this society.

Avoiding self-destruction: In order to redeem themselves and avoid self-destruction, four immediate steps are required. Firstly, all major lawyers’ associations must pass a categorical resolution apologising to the victims of the PIC attack and unqualifiedly condemning all lawyers involved in this grisly episode. Secondly, the licences of lawyers involved in this incident must be suspended after due process. Thirdly, a judicial commission composed of a superior court judge and civil society members must be demanded to inquire into this incident. Fourthly, criminal prosecution of the accused lawyers should not be obstructed by the lawyers’ associations.

If this current path of self-denial and self-destruction is not abandoned, then the lawyers’ associations might save a few guilty lawyers — but at the expense of irreparably damaging the entire legal profession.

The writer is a lawyer.

Published in Dawn, December 23rd, 2019



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