A politicised judiciary in Pakistan needs comprehensive reforms to restore trust

The judiciary in Pakistan is at a crossroads. The current trend, characterised by politicisation and inefficiency, jeopardises the basic foundations of justice and the rule of law.

Waleed Sami Jun 25, 2024
Pakistan Supreme Court

The plight of Pakistan's legal system is increasingly becoming cumbersome. The judiciary, which has long been seen as the defender of justice and the rule of law, is now being systematically stymied through the political inclinations of judges, their financial gains, and resultant institutional decay. The trend of locking horns with contemporary state institutions is also rampant. The effects are painfully obvious in the most recently issued World Justice Report(WJR), whose Rule of Law Index puts Pakistan as 130th out of a total of 142 nations internationally. In the region, Pakistan stands 5th out of 6 regional countries. The repercussions of emerging politicisation are far-reaching and alarming, affecting the judicial system and the entire fabric of Pakistani society.

A monumental backlog 

The case of writing letters to Islamabad High Court (IHC) judges has been pending for two months; an election tribunal case, which began on February 14, 2024, has been pending for over four months;  the hearing of the case on the specific seats of the Sunni Ittehad Council (SIC) has been pending for over three months; the NAB Tarmeem case has been pending for more than two months;  while the NAB Ordinance case has been pending for over two years. To top it all, the 9 May vandalism cases have been outstanding for years now. These cases reflect poorly a judiciary that is persistently failing to fulfil its fundamental obligation to provide speedy justice. The continuous filing of new cases, totalling 2.38 million during the reporting year, adds to the backlog, although the courts resolved 2.30 million cases.

The Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan's latest Bi-Annual Report on Judicial Statistics offers a grim image. Between July and December 2023, the number of cases pending climbed by 3.9 per cent, reaching a whopping number of 2.26 million. There are 1.86 million district judges and 0.39 million in the top tier, which includes the Supreme Court, Federal Shariat Court, and High Courts. This backlog is more than just a number; it symbolises millions of lives affected in the maze of an ineffective system.

Politicization and Its fallout 

Instead of focusing on its principal role—providing justice to complainants—Pakistan's courts have gotten mired in political intrigue. This politicisation takes many forms, ranging from favouritism in high-profile instances to attempts to mint personal fortunes. The current debate over judicial reforms and constitutional revisions, notably those affecting the tenure of Pakistan's Chief Justice, demonstrates the extent of political meddling.

The present government’s proposal to extend Chief Justice Qazi Faez Isa's tenure exemplifies this. The opposition parties, particularly the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), see this action as an attempt to safeguard the existing government’s interests. The dissidents claim that such revisions would damage the judicial system's integrity, converting it into a tool for political power.

The political ties of judges exacerbate the situation. Justice Isa is regarded as friendly to Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif's ruling alliance, in contrast to his predecessor, Chief Justice Umar Ata Bandial, who was seen as affiliated with the previous administration of PTI of former Prime Minister Imran Khan. Choosing judges based on political allegiance rather than judicial ability undermines public faith in the judiciary's impartiality.

The cost of inaction 

The implications of a politicised judiciary are serious and widespread. Delayed justice, as seen by the massive backlog of cases, weakens public trust in the judicial system, while impeding economic and social growth. Businesses are hesitant to invest in a nation, where legal disputes might last for years without resolution. Citizens lose trust in the government’s capacity to defend their rights, resulting in heightened social unrest. Furthermore, the judiciary's emphasis on political gains rather than justice dispensation perpetuates a vicious cycle. As political meddling increases, the judiciary becomes less effective, resulting in delays and inefficiencies. This arrangement is unsustainable and requires immediate correction.

Pakistan's quandary is that anytime the country attempts to achieve economic and political stability, judicial activism stymies progress. The judicial activism of 2007 and the contemporary judicial system have commonalities. The main goal appears to be to target governmental institutions, harm their reputation, and diminish their dignity and legitimacy in the eyes of the people.

Pathways to reform 

The judiciary needs to reconsider its approach, taking into account its judicial history and the performance of its official obligations. It should refrain from making unfounded charges against strong figures without proof or inquiry. Several efforts are required to restore the judiciary's integrity and effectiveness. These changes should seek to depoliticize the court, simplify judicial processes, and ensure quick case settlement.

1. Depoliticize judicial appointments.

Judicial appointments should be based on merit rather than political connections. Establishing an independent judicial panel to select and nominate judges can assist in guaranteeing that only competent, unbiased persons take the bench. This commission should be transparent, with input from a wide variety of stakeholders, including lawyers, civil society, and academics.

2. Implement efficient case management systems.

Modernising the judiciary's case management systems may greatly minimise delays. Investing in digital infrastructure for tracking and managing cases can boost efficiency and transparency. Furthermore, establishing alternative conflict resolution processes, such as mediation and arbitration, can assist courts in reducing their workload by settling some types of disputes outside of the regular court system.

3. Strengthen accountability mechanisms.

To sustain public trust, the courts must be responsible for its activities. Establishing a strong oversight organisation to monitor judicial conduct and handle complaints will assist in guaranteeing that judges follow high ethical standards. This committee should have the ability to investigate and punish judges who have engaged in misconduct or corruption.

4. Promote transparency and public engagement.

Transparency in court procedures and rulings is critical to establishing public trust. Courts should make their proceedings and judgements easily accessible to the public, and use digital media wherever practicable. Furthermore, interacting with civil society and the media can demystify the judicial process and illustrate the judiciary's dedication to justice and the rule of law. 

Judicial reforms needed 

The judiciary in Pakistan is at a crossroads. The current trend, characterised by politicisation and inefficiency, jeopardises the basic foundations of justice and the rule of law. However, by implementing comprehensive reforms aimed at depoliticizing the court, boosting efficiency, and increasing accountability, Pakistan may restore trust in its legal system and guarantee that justice is administered to all its inhabitants. This would not only enhance Pakistan's global judicial index standing but also restore the judiciary's dignity and credibility in the eyes of the public.

(The author is a postgraduate student of Strategic Studies from the Centre for International Peace and Stability (CIPS), a school of the National University of Science and Technology (NUST), Islamabad. Views are personal. He can be reached at waleedsami56@gmail.com )

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