The Pakistani legal system has evolved into a dystopian nightmare, mired with corruption and nepotism, hijacked by political interests and utterly stagnated by a legal fraternity that operates less like an intellectual community and more like a dysfunctional consortium of hoodlums.
The famed Lawyer’s Movement, far from inculcating respect for rule of law without exception, has in fact ended up propelling lawyers beyond the reach of the law. It appears that in the midst of championing its holy cause, the legal community stumbled upon our national magic formula: unity is strength, strength is nuisance and nuisance is a form of power. And who does not love the sheer convenience of a little power in this country?
Rather than being respected for their professionalism, lawyers are now genuinely feared in our society. Traffic wardens refuse to ticket us, policeman stray clear of confronting us, landlords bluntly deny us tenancies and – bizarrely but understandably – even banks deny us loans and credit card facilities.
The reason is plain: lawyers have started acting with unparalleled and absolute impunity. They have assaulted and threatened judges and court staff, spat profanities in crowded courtrooms, manhandled witnesses, police officers and ordinary citizens, facilitated convicted criminals in fleeing court premises and wrongfully and forcibly taken possession of properties. It is an inexhaustible list.
So matter-of-fact is our notoriety that barely a week passes before the antics of a band of lawyers splashes onto television screens, newspapers and social media. This is procedurally followed by a murmur of generalised disagreement in the community, a handful of disapproving comments and a round of solemn condemnation. Then, we end up repeating the cycle all over again.
Just consider the events of August 2, when a hundred-strong group of lawyers stormed into the courtroom of the chief justice of the Lahore High Court and demanded that the contempt of court proceedings initiated against an elected representative of the Multan Bar be stopped immediately. They chanted vicious slogans and disrupted proceedings while the police stood idly by, trying their best to refrain from further antagonising the charged mob. This is what it has come to. Even the highest courtroom of the province is not safe from being hijacked.
Clearly, this ‘unity equals power’ formula has ended up disparaging the legal profession beyond repair. And frankly put, we all understand this. We all acknowledge that our clout has made us suffer, both in reputation and esteem. However, there is immense reluctance to fix this fractured system. After all, while we may be occasionally disadvantaged by it, we are, collectively and individually, its greatest beneficiaries. The system serves us, and it serves us well.
One would imagine that the problem must lie in the absence of any disciplinary mechanism. That, however, is not the case. The country’s superior judiciary is well-equipped with disciplinary powers that allow it to cancel or suspend a practitioner’s licence for misconduct in addition to their powers to convict a person for contempt of court. However, this power is (and ought to be) used sparingly. For lawyers to diligently carry out their functions, there must be a degree of separation between the bar and the bench. The judiciary cannot, in principle, be allowed to impinge upon or exert undue influence on the legal community and nor can any other non-elected body be allowed to do the same.
A more appropriate mechanism is provided by the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act of 1973, which establishes a robust system for self-regulation. Any person aggrieved of a lawyer’s actions may file a complaint with the relevant bar council, whose disciplinary committee is tasked with carrying out a preliminary examination of the matter. If the complaint is found to be meritorious, it is forwarded to a tribunal for proper adjudication, which is presided over by a sitting justice of the superior courts along with two members of that particular bar council.
However, this model functions as a double-edged sword. While it guarantees that the legal community will remain safeguarded from external influence, it also opens up the possibility of the potential abuse of this process. The members of the bar councils are elected and, ultimately, they are answerable to the legal community and rely on them for their continued support. Add to that the tightly knitted, one-for-all and all-for-one nature of the fraternity, it naturally becomes extraordinarily difficult (politically) for these members to exercise their disciplinary duties – especially when it comes to the actions of prominent lawyers and their support groups.
That is precisely the reason for our present conundrum. Bar councils, who are fearful of losing precious voters, have utterly disregarded their disciplinary duties. Most incidents of hooliganism are brushed under the carpet and those that momentarily surface to the limelight are quickly shunned to the darkness after ‘amicable settlements’.
It is time bar councils realised that they owe a duty, not only to their electorate but also to the respect and dignity of their profession and began performing the functions with which they have been entrusted. It is enough for us to have managed to make an addition to our colloquial vocabulary, what with the term vukla-gardi having now entered into common parlance. Let’s not continue till we end up compiling an entire dictionary.
The writer is an advocate.