THE pursuit of justice starts with a file. A court file is a bundle, in essence, of a few facts, peppered with legal principles and some provisions of law, containing a request for a relief from the judge. It is a story of litigants who either believe themselves to have been wronged or wrongly accused of committing a wrong.
As the proceedings roll forward, the file thickens. Initially, there is only a party’s complaint. Subsequently, orders passed by the judge are added. A response may be sought from the other side. Additional written statements may be required to be submitted. As the file grows, the story takes a life of its own.
In the courtroom, meanwhile, the arguments are sharpened. The already rendered decisions are frantically dug out from both the recent and distant past, rendered by courts in lands both near and far — a conversation happening between jurists and litigants located apart, in time and space, causing the file to grow further.
After the institution of a case, and a few hearings, however, there is a possibility of another thing happening: the file of a litigant can suddenly disappear. The story just vanishes; the higher ideals of justice, deemed sacred by some, are rendered worthless in the dark crevices of offices in and around the courtrooms.
The court file is somewhere, but somehow, no one knows where.
The physical files are shuffled from hand to hand, with multiple court staff members having to do something with it. There are stamps, for instance, that are to be affixed; there are orders and subsequent filings to be placed in it. For every hearing, the file shuttles to and fro from the record room to the court and back. The handling of the files, as they are carried and dumped around from place to place, treated as if they are marketable commodities in bulk, with torn and fading file covers, is rarely a sight that inspires confidence in our court system.
This constant movement of the files, meanwhile, creates the circumstances in which a few of those files are bound to go missing. Some of it is mere inefficiency, procedural lapses and genuine mistakes. The files of two completely different cases, for instance, may inadvertently get lumped together, and it may be a while before that mistake is discovered.
But not all disappearances are benign. A concerned lawyer or litigant when she ventures forth to figure out about a case that has not been fixed by the court in a while, or, when she tries to retrieve an order of an already decided case, may find out, to her total surprise, that the file is missing. For the already pending matters, this particularly happens in those cases in which the next date of hearing is not fixed by the judge in court, but by the ‘office’.
Like most bureaucratic machinery, the operations of the courts may entangle you in a quagmire. The file certainly exists, because it shows on the record, but then it went to some office. From that office, one might learn, that the file was sent somewhere else. It was supposed to return, but it never returned. The file is somewhere, but somehow, no one knows where. Seeing your worried face, someone might climb up the lined shelves, push around a couple of files gathering dust, but, no, the file you are looking for is somewhere else.
Hypothetically, ‘buying’ a judge, even if assumed a possibility, is not easy, and certainly neither cheap nor risk-free. The extended court staff network is another matter, though. For the court staff, cultivating a relationship with a few hospital-conquering, court-smashing, and judge-beating lawyers, or even the lawyers of other kinds, can pay dividends. A son, who is studying law, would need a place to work when he graduates. An unemployed cousin can be placed in a chamber as a law clerk. A few extra bucks can make possible the daughter’s dream to study medicine. And then, disappearing a file, that too temporarily, isn’t the worst of crimes. Aren’t people aware already that the court processes take time?
Taking the filing process online may solve some of these problems. The disappearance of the physical file would not be the end; there would be an online version. Similarly, the court orders, ideally, ought to be typed, instead of being handwritten, electronically signed by judges, and uploaded in real time, and later printed out for the physical file. And while with the online system, there would be a threat of hacking, and wiping out of the data, the already existing physical file can serve as a back-up, as the systems are improved and firewalls created to withstand online intrusion.
Aggrieved people’s stories deserve to be heard, rather than being allowed to slip through the cracks, and our court filing system has to be upgraded and streamlined to ensure just that.
The writer is a litigator based in Islamabad. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Yasir Mustafa, a litigation manager based in Islamabad, contributed to this article.
Published in Dawn, November 14th, 2021