THE wheels of justice turn slowly but they grind exceedingly fine, goes the proverbial expression. It is, however, the first part that best describes Pakistan’s judicial system, while we are far from achieving the second half of that reassuring dictum. Endless delays, umpteenth rounds of the courts, and mounting legal expenses — that is the experience of most litigants. Matters, it seems, are going to get worse before they get better. It emerged on Sunday that 51,387 cases are pending before the Supreme Court, as per its fortnightly report. Last year, in late May 2020, it was reported that 44,658 cases were pending before the apex court, which was then the highest ever pendency in its history. Overall, there are around 2,160,000 cases yet to be disposed of in Pakistan’s judicial system.

There have been efforts now and then to clear the backlog, at least in the superior courts. Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry during his tenure as the country’s top judge instituted double shifts for judges to hear cases. The last chief justice, Asif Saeed Khosa, focused on streamlining court procedures and setting up model courts in every district to expedite the hearing of criminal cases. Due to his efforts, the 25-year backlog of criminal appeals has almost been cleared. However, civil cases still drag on interminably, sometimes outlasting the lifetime of the litigants themselves and thereby causing terrible injustice. In May 2019, Pakistan’s apex court for the first time began hearing cases through video link connectivity. This enabled lawyers to argue cases without being physically present in court; the fact their caseload often requires them to appear in different courts, sometimes in different cities, is one of the reasons that adjournments are sought so frequently. This innovative approach did not have time to become well established before Covid-19 spread across the world; at the moment, it is employed on a very limited scale at the level of the superior courts. The coronavirus pandemic thus played havoc with an already dysfunctional judicial system, with hearings suspended for weeks on end. In some ways, however, the judiciary itself bears some responsibility for the huge backlog, even before the contagion struck. Many senior lawyers point to the slew of public interest cases under Articles 184 (3) and 199 that grant the superior judiciary the power to enforce fundamental rights, as a significant factor in slowing down the wheels of justice.

That said, the situation in the lower courts, where most of the public has its first encounter with the judicial system, is far worse. Incompetent and/or overworked public prosecutors, individuals prepared to bear false witness for a price, shoddy police investigations, etc — the problems are many and serious. The provision of justice, or at least a measure of justice, is considered one of the hallmarks of a functioning state. By this standard, we have a long way to go.

Published in Dawn, June 29th, 2021

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