Packed with bullies

By M Shahrukh Shahnawaz
May 27, 2023

In 2020, a letter by Additional District and Sessions Judge Dr Sajida Ahmed Chaudhry to the then chief justice of Pakistan addressing the harassment that her fellow judges face at the hands of lawyers had raised many serious questions.


This matter should have been promptly addressed to safeguard the integrity and respect of the institution of subordinate judiciary. The respect, dignity and privacy of an individual is protected under Article 14 of the constitution.

The picture, however, is grim with respect to the subordinate judiciary in Pakistan. The contempt of court law is very much present but its implementation still seems impossible due to the inaction of bar associations against their member lawyers, who are involved in an unruly and contemptuous behaviour against the court.

It is also interesting to note that when it comes to harassing a woman lawyer or judge at the workplace, this behaviour is justified by their abusers who say they were provoked by women lawyers or judges or that they rightly deserved to be abused and insulted. This kind of toxic attitude towards women is destroying the very foundation of society, with women discouraged to seek and avail equal economic opportunities by pursuing legal or any other kind of profession.

The letter had also raised another important issue regarding the mental health of the judges of the subordinate judiciary. The legal system of Pakistan still regards suicide an offence instead of a mental illness. The suicide case of the late Magistrate Stephen Myall in Australia shows the pressures to which members of the judiciary and the legal community are exposed as he faced an enormous workload.

The World Health Organization (WHO) report on suicide estimates that in 2012, there were 13,377 suicides in Pakistan, out of which 7,085 were women and 6,021 were men, with rates of 7.5 per 100,000. Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a serious mental condition and is usually experienced by war veterans, physical or sexual assault victims, victims of bullying, and people who lose their close friends or relatives or have a near-death experience. Depression, according to the WHO, can lead to suicide, and that close to 800,000 people commit suicide every year.

Judicial magistrates can experience PTSD and depression due to the nature of their work which includes, but is not limited to, conducting exhumation of dead bodies; death threats in murder or terrorism-related cases when appearing as witnesses for recording confessional statement or conducting identification parade of the accused; surviving a near-death experience or murder attempts; and constantly fearing for their and their loved ones’ lives.

Constantly working in such a harsh environment has detrimental physical and psychological effects on the health of judicial officers, and the constant bullying and harassment by lawyers is one of many causes for PSTD, depression and suicidal tendencies among the judges of the subordinate judiciary.

This form of harassment is not only limited to the court premises; in 2022, former prime minister Imran Khan made inappropriate and threatening remarks at a rally in Islamabad against Additional District and Sessions Judge Zeba Chaudhry and warned her of dire consequences, only proving that women judges and lawyers are an easy target. At present, District and Sessions Judge Malir Sadaf Khokhar is under criticism for prohibiting the illegal sale of water from the court’s RO filter plant.

There are many such instances and cases of violence and harassment against women judges and lawyers which never get reported. The respect and dignity of the subordinate judiciary must be ensured and upheld. With no security and no dignity, a weak judge who is expected to uphold and safeguard the fundamental rights is bound to fail.

The writer is a lawyer and a faculty member at the Department of International Relations, University of Karachi.