Reimagining justice

Published April 18, 2023
The writer is a lawyer.
The writer is a lawyer.

AS one walks towards the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the first thing that hits you is the sheer opulence of the building which houses the apex court. Its contemporary design and white outlook more or less embodies what Pakistan’s judiciary aspired to be: a beacon of light cherished for its purity, and not ready to be outshone by another institution; a forum for justice, modern in its outlook and yet confined within the bounds of its constitutional paradigm.

But as you walk through the various check-points and the airy corridors and climb the steep flights of innumerable stairs to reach your courtroom, the Supreme Court’s building in Islamabad also makes it obvious how long, arduous and painful your quest for justice will be.

Pakistan’s judiciary, much like its Constitution, has been in and out of favour. There have been times when the judges at the helm in the higher courts have been championed by the masses, and there have been times when they have been ridiculed for being hand-in-glove with the ‘elites’. The outlook today is no different.

The end of Gen Pervez Musharraf’s reign is often attributed to Pakistan’s judicial renaissance, which is seen as a time when the judiciary finally turned the corner. Yet, one and a half decades after the supposed renaissance, we find Pakistan’s judiciary as much under siege as it ever was, caught as it is in the crosshairs of one of the country’s bitterest political battles and facing the kind of internal strife not seen since the notorious 1990s.

The quest for justice is long and arduous.

So, what went wrong? For starters, in a country where political ideologies can tear apart friendships and families, the judiciary regularly found itself to be the arena where battles for political relevance and survival were waged. And it seemed that those at the helm of affairs in the higher courts, especially the Supreme Court, found the new media spotlight refreshing and, dare I say, empowering.

Yet, as the superior judiciary continued to soar to new heights, it arguably lost sight of its primary purpose; ie, its role as the institution mandated to dispense and oversee the dispensation of justice. Today, courts across the country, from the lowest to the highest, face mounting pendency of cases and are extremely understaffed.

Ask the average lawyer today and you will hear tales of pendency, adjournments and delays. The courts, which were supposed to be the beacons of light in a dark world, seem to have taken a liking to watching the Goliaths of the world battle it out while the Davids continue to suffer.

For instance, the last judicial appointment to the top court in the province of Sindh (the Sindh High Court) was made on Aug 29, 2019. Since then, 10 judges have either been elevated to the Supreme Court or have retired, which means that the high court, which is to accommodate cases emanating from the commercial hub of Karachi, is at least four judges short (even if we take into account the six additional judges appointed his month).

The same situation exists at the Lahore High Court, the top court of Pakistan’s most populous province. The last judicial appointment to the Lahore High Court was made on May 7, 2021. Since then, six judges of the high court have either retired or have been elevated to the Supreme Court, which means the Lahore High Court is six judges short.

To put that into context, one judge, sometimes two as part of a bench, regularly have to deal with 30-45 cases simultaneously. This means hundreds of cases each day are either not being listed or heard simply be­­c­ause the top courts of Pakistan’s two largest provinces are under­­staffed.

As unfortunate as it may seem, the influx of political litigation and the enthusiasm with which they are being entertained by the superior courts means that there is little time left for those at the helm of affairs to consider the sorry plight of the ordinary claimant. Never mind if it is the man who spends his entire adulthood in jail or the widow who dies in poverty unable to provide for her children, because her claim for lawful inheritance continues to be passed over for more ‘urgent’ matters; the political titans continue to get their meaningful days in court.

Yes, the judiciary is at a crossroads and there are growing questions about whether it can come out of this crisis stronger. One certainly hopes it does. But when the dust settles and the politicians each have their share of the pie, perhaps the judiciary, while licking its wounds, should begin to introspect on what it could have achieved had it paid heed to its internal fissures, ensured transparency in its functioning and opted out of refereeing petty political dogfights for a more meaningful attempt at setting its house in order and making justice accessible to those who needed it the most.

The writer is a lawyer.

Twitter: @sheheryarzaidi

Published in Dawn, April 18th, 2023

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