The Punjab Bar Council convened a summit of likeminded lawyers in Lahore on October 15, 2016. The participants of this convention included representatives of the Supreme Court Bar Association, the Pakistan Bar Council, the Lahore High Court Bar Association and reportedly lawyers from 80 bar associations across Punjab. The convention demanded the removal of the chief justice of the Lahore High Court.
The charge against the chief justice was not that he had abetted in the abrogation of the constitution, nor was there an iota of any financial or intellectual impropriety imputed but his peccadillo was that he had chaired a committee of judges of the high court that took to task a luminary of a bar association for misbehaving with a judge.
Just over three months ago, when this 45th chief justice of the oldest high court in the land took his oath of office, it became apparent that he was a peril to the state of the judicial apparatus in the province, if not the country. He sprang upon this unsuspecting institution this novel notion of self-accountability. The felicitations from the subordinate judiciary were still in the mail when 30 judicial officers, including three district and sessions judges, six additional district and sessions judges and 21 civil judges, were removed from their posts on account of questionable reputations.
Next, he decided to take on the seldom publicised yet grave issue of misogyny within the judiciary. For the first time in the history of Pakistan a judicial officers’ (female) supervisory committee was constituted, comprising three high court judges including two lady justices of the high court. The task of this committee is to ensure protection of women judges’ rights in the hostile environment they face while discharging their duties. In another pioneering step, he appointed for the first time ever a female director general of the Punjab Judicial Academy.
Within two months of taking oath, the chief justice introduced a mobile application, making the Lahore High Court the first court in the country to be accessible via smartphone. The mobile application is part of a greater effort to automate the entire court. Litigants can now access all the requisite information regarding cases, including dates of hearing, progress reports, status of cases and even copies of judgements online by themselves.
The appointments to the superior judiciary have been the subject of public debate recently. Voices from within and without the institution have called for a more transparent and objective selection process. Traditionally, a chief justice of a high court would nominate candidates for elevation based on his own subjective perception of such people. It is argued that this system excludes all but those who maintain close proximity to judges.
In a ground-breaking move, this chief justice unsealed the gates of reform and opened up the selection process to all qualified candidates. The high court began inviting law officers and advocates of good repute for interviews and also offered a proforma application to any qualified advocate seeking elevation. According to media reports, of the 255 applications collected by advocates, 182 were completed and submitted to the high court.
Dozens of applicants were shortlisted and interviewed and the most qualified were recommended to the judicial commission for elevation. It would merit an accolade that the names recommended for elevation were primarily from the pool of persons who had offered themselves by filling out the requisite applications.
The contagious affliction of misbehaviour by lawyers has gone viral in the last decade. So much so, that a new term of ‘vukla gardi’ was been added to common parlance to define these acts of wanton misconduct. The fact that instances of vukla gardi continue to headline in yards of newsprint and hours of air time, time and time again, may lead to an inference that the accountability of lawyers at the hands of their peers, ie bar councils, is not taking place effectively.
It was in the backdrop of this enormous challenge to the dignity of the justice system that the chief justice decided to constitute a disciplinary committee, comprising himself and six judges of the high court, to cure and prevent misconduct in the legal profession.
A case was brought before this disciplinary committee by an additional district and sessions judge. According to press reports, a luminary of a bar association was so infuriated by an order of the court that he tore it up, threatened the officiating judge with dire consequences and peppered the judge and the court with vile and offensive expletives. The disciplinary committee issued a show-cause notice to the lawyer and upon his unexcused absence at the date of hearing proceeded to suspend his licence to practise law for three months and referred the matter to the Punjab Bar Council for further disciplinary action.
Such disciplinary action by the superior courts, merits of each case notwithstanding, is not novel at all. Just last year the Supreme Court passed similar orders against the present president of the Supreme Court Bar Association and not too long ago a former federal law minister similarly found himself on the anvil of the court.
However, this time round a segment of the bar deemed the action of the court as being an encroachment upon the independence of the bar and provoked a province vide agitation against the chief justice, including putting the courts on a lockdown. The crescendo of this agitation was the convention at Lahore where they demanded the removal of the chief justice and also required that the names that have been submitted for elevation as judges by this chief justice be disregarded. Amongst their other demands was also the striking down of the law that empowered the courts to take remedial measures against lawyers in cases of misconduct.
The chief justice certainly didn’t pay any heed to such provocation as not only did he not resign but he convened and chaired the next meeting of the disciplinary committee as per the announced schedule. In any event, the demand for striking down the law empowering judicial oversight of professional misconduct was self-defeating as it amounted to an unequivocal admission that the disciplinary action had legal sanction.
However, much trepidation greeted the news that a meeting of the judicial commission, held post October 15, 2016, decided to delay the deliberations on the issue of new judges proposed by the chief justice of the Lahore High Court. The judicial commission reportedly stated that “In order to select the best out of best persons, some additional names may be added to the list of nominations already initiated by honourable chief justice of Lahore High Court…”
The list of candidates, crystallised after the most revolutionary exercise for such determination in the history of the Subcontinent, now requires the addition of additional names. It make me wonder if the chief justice is required to initiate another exercise for such determination or are the additional names supposed to be chosen in the very manner that this reform sought to repudiate.
The judicial commission’s action must surely be predicated upon lofty bona fide considerations, however down on agitation avenue the decision has only bolstered the resolve of those standing in the way of reforming the justice system. It was Roosevelt who once likened appeasement to feeding your friends to a crocodile in the hope that it will eat you last.
The bench, lawyers and the entire civil society need to stand together and nurture the reformative agenda of the Lahore High Court to fruition. The dignity and credibility of the justice system is being challenged in street theatres and, unless rule of law trumps the din of provocative agitation, the brightest opportunity for reform of the justice system in Pakistan will be the latest victim of vukla gardi.
The writer is a barrister-at-law.