Recent incidents of inaccurate reporting in the media of observations made by the superior judiciary, and efforts to guard the sanctity of court proceedings from being sullied by inaccuracies, have underlined an urgent need for the transcription of court proceedings at all levels in Pakistan.
In such controversies, every charge of inaccurate reporting pits the word of a reporter against that of a venerable justice. It is a gulf that can potentially give birth to two islands.
“Therefore, the urgency to bridge or mend it before it’s too late,” says Mahmood Awan, a former journalist turned advocate. “The only way for anyone to verify reports on the media, or to judge that the process of [the] court was fair, non-discriminatory and by no means perverse, would be ... to log onto the website of the [specific] high court ...or the Supreme Court of Pakistan and hear the audio of the case to find out if the news report one read was inaccurate or that a lawyer appearing for either party misrepresented as to his submissions before the court to mislead [the] audience of his press conference”.
In the UK – a country we look to for judicial reforms and where we send our future jurists and judges alike to train – hearings at the Crown Court and at civil and family courts are always recorded. Tribunal hearings are recorded only when certain conditions are fulfilled.
In the US, the Supreme Court website makes audio recording of proceedings before the Supreme Court public. In addition to the audio recordings, the Supreme Court provides the facility of downloading court transcripts to one’s own hardware.
Inaccurate reporting of court proceedings, where parties or less experienced reporters or writers did not fully appreciate the difference between an observation made during the course of legal proceedings and an order of the court, have occurred worldwide – and Pakistan has been no exception on that score.
Such inaccuracies and their impact on how the public perceives courts, and the men or women entrusted with the function of dispensing justice, have gained in significance since the superior courts of Pakistan have assumed jurisdiction to declare whether the holder of a public office merits to be adjudged truthful and worthy of trust.
Recent judgments declaring politicians untruthful and dishonest – and therefore unfit to be elected as members of parliament – are findings in respect of individuals who are popular and have support among the public.
It is then only natural that some of these voters and supporters have a less than favourable view of the judgments. These agitated and confused supporters are then affected by inaccurate accounts of court proceeding, thereby looking at what may be perfectly plausible judgments as part of some plot to humiliate their leaders.
While it may still not be obvious to many, public confidence in the capacity of the superior courts to dispense justice in favour of the wronged and against the wrong-doer stands shaken by this popular partisan view of the recent judgments.
On the otherhand, steps taken by the superior judiciary to curb what is perceived as a failure to report proceedings accurately are also then seen and projected by some as bordering on intimidation.
These perceptions are a good reason to ensure urgent action to make access to a more accurate record of court proceedings conveniently available, such as in the UK or the US where transcripts are supplied in exchange for a small fee.
Jurists and lawyers alike believe that transcription of court proceedings would improve the overall manner in which the proceedings are conducted, and the exchange of bitter or cynical remarks could then start to find their way out of court proceedings, making them more serious and formal.
Article II of the Code of Conduct for Judges of the Supreme Court and the High Courts requires that a “Judge should be God-fearing, law-abiding, abstemious, truthful of tongue, wise in opinion, cautious and forbearing, blameless, and untouched by greed. While dispensing justice, he should be strong without being rough, polite without being weak, awe inspir[ing] in his warnings and faithful to his word, always preserving calmness, balance and complete detachment, for the formation of correct conclusions in all matters coming before him. In the matter of taking his seat and of rising from his seat, he shall be punctilious in point of time, mindful of the courtesies, careful to preserve the dignity of the court, while maintaining an equal aspect towards all litigants as well as lawyers appearing before him.”
There can be no doubt that if the proceedings are recorded and transcribed, the values exhorted by the code of conduct of the judges and lawyers will be put to practice and thus add to the respect for all judicial institutions.
The ‘practice directions’ issued in 2014 for family law cases in the UK provide, among other similar stipulations, “A person who has obtained a copy of the official transcript of proceedings or a judgment may apply, upon payment of the charges authorised by any scheme in force, for permission to listen to or receive a copy of an audio recording of the proceedings, the judgment, or a part thereof.”
Practitioners of litigation in lower courts also agree that if similar methods of audio recording and transcription are made available for civil and criminal cases, the entire process would turn civil and efficient over time.
As Fahad Tareen, a trial lawyer, says: “Just imagine what such a course would do the capacity of the trial to decide the matter more justly... the appellate courts [would] find it easier to dispose of appeals with little assistance from the parties or their pleaders”.
The writer is a reporter at Geo News.