Honourable people

Published March 19, 2023
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

JUDGES are strange, fascinating characters.

Every morning, they don colour-coded robes, walk into their workplace with sherwani-clad chaperones, and look down from elevated seats at rooms full of supplicants. Once court is over, they disappear behind the same closed doors they entered from, not to be seen again till the next session. This vanishing act, along with the other idiosyncrasies, isn’t accidental. Vast amounts are spent each year on maintaining the spectacle that judges are not mere people and courts are not mere buildings.

Separate entrances and walkways ensure no one catches a glimpse of them. To the public, their lordships materialise out of thin air, dispense justice, and then return to whichever higher realm they had descended from. The undertones are unmistakable — that the man in the robe is not human. He is a living embodiment of the law, existing solely to dispense justice. Blind to every external consideration. And because his word is final, he must be infallible.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. Judges across the globe are regular human beings with a job to do. Still, nobody challenges the illusion. Because it’s a prerequisite of any functioning society to believe in things that exist only in its peoples’ collective imagination, like culture and etiquettes. Judges are not infallible beings divinely ordained with the power to bestow justice, but society operates with the assumption that they are, because that’s the best option we’ve got. Adhering to social constructs may seem silly, but the alternative (lawless anarchy) isn’t much nicer.

Judges across the globe are regular human beings.

What’s often forgotten is that the judge is meant to be in on the joke. But as any practising lawyer will tell you, years of life as his lordship can take its toll. In a 2017 essay titled ‘Judges as bullies’, Georgetown law professor Abbe Smith proposes that a perpetual power imbalance and daily life that consists of people bowing and scraping before them can convince some judges that they’re above the law. And while everything said so far could be equally true abroad, you can rest assured that this phenomenon’s Pakistani equivalent is on steroids.

Consider last month, when some honourable lordships were caught using the influence of their office to try and procure VVIP tickets to PSL. The reason you didn’t see many lawyers commenting on this is that they’d be crazy to. Power imbalances are too great and egos too fragile for a culture of honest, critical discourse to even take root.

This pattern extends to criticism of judgements. Today, judges can rewrite the Constitution, wrap the daylight robbery of democratic rights in complex legalese, and most of those who understand what’s happening will struggle to muster a statement stronger than ‘though his lordship is very brilliant, I humbly disagree’.

If legal experts abdicate their responsibility of honest critique in the interest of politeness, they leave a vacuum that is inevitably filled by uninformed vitriol. The many judges sane enough to appreciate well-reasoned criticism will be deprived of it, and the legal system will find itself in a never-ending cycle of sycophantism and mediocrity, while the public loses whatever faith it had left in everyone involved.

In a judgement recently, the Supreme Court held that the prefix ‘honourable’ should not be used for inanimate objects, like courts. More importantly, it observed that the excessive use of honorifics (like hon’ble, learned, sir, lordship, etc) served as a substitute for meaningful arguments. The conclusion: “we expect litigants, counsel, and judges … to ensure clarity, brevity and to avoid the perception of being obsequious.”

The scope of this judgment is precise, the need for it long overdue, and the message clear: Pakistan’s legal system needs to cut down on the fluff and flattery. Respect for constitutional bodies and civility in discourse is unquestionable. But you can’t clear a 50,000-case backlog if you’re imposing the need to punctuate every breath with superfluous niceties. In the resultant inefficiency, it is regular litigants who suffer most.

Focusing on words may seem needlessly pedantic; but small choices add up, and over decades, they contribute to culture. Why, for example, should the Supreme Court be referred to as ‘honourable’ if the National Assembly is not? Is the Senate not honourable? Courts in the US, UK, and even the Hague are not referred to with this title. Are we claiming to be more honourable than them?

Well, in our case, it was an honourable court of very honourable people that murdered Bhutto, betrayed the Constitution it swore an oath to uphold, went through a brief dam-engineer phase, and found multiple occasions to sell its soul to dictators.

If that is what the actualisation of this word looks like, maybe we’re far better off without it.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @hkwattoo1

Published in Dawn, March 19th, 2023

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