Judicial reforms for a competitive Pakistan

The incoming CJP has a reputation of being one of the most efficient judges in decision-making

Manzoor Ahmad January 16, 2019
The writer served as Pakistan’s ambassador to WTO from 2002-08

When Imran Khan first entered politics, his singular focus was on reforming the judicial system to one where speedy justice would be available to all. Now that the country’s judiciary is entering a new phase, just such an opportunity has become available. The incoming Chief Justice, Asif Saeed Khosa, has a reputation of being one of the most efficient judges in decision-making. If the PTI government extends the same support to the new Chief Justice for improving judiciary as it gave for building dams to the outgoing CJP, together they could work wonders.

A well-functioning judiciary has influence far beyond the dispensation of justice. It can make the country more competitive. So far, the new government’s effort has been to blame everything on corruption. But the data shows that it is not corruption but non-functioning institutions, including judiciary as well, that are responsible for our ills. In terms of tackling corruption, Pakistan has been making slow but steady progress. In the corruption perception index its international ranking has improved from 143 in 2010 to 117 in 2017 and is doing much better than some neighbouring countries such as Bangladesh (143), Iran and Myanmar (130).

On the other hand, performance of our judiciary has been wanting. According to the 2017-18 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which measures whether ordinary people can resolve their grievances through the civil justice system, Pakistan’s score is the worst in the region, or 6th out of 6, and globally it’s 105th out of 113.

There are many reasons for this poor performance but the most important one is the long pendency of cases. There are forty thousand cases pending with the Supreme Court, about three hundred thousand with the five high courts and about two million with the subordinate judiciary of the four provinces and the federal capital, according to the Law and Justice Commission of Pakistan.

During the last five years, the number of cases pending in the Supreme Court has gone more than double to reach the highest level for the last 15 years. In 2006, the number of pending cases before it was 13,724. Today it is three times that.

Compared to other countries, the court procedures in Pakistan are complicated, lengthy and expensive. On average, it takes 1,071 days to settle a commercial dispute in court (World Bank, 2018). Then the case can go to the appeal stage first in a High Court and then in the Supreme Court. It is not unusual for a case to take more than a dozen years to be decided.

At the 8th Judicial Conference in May 2018, the then acting and now the incoming Chief Justice, Asif Khosa, made several far-reaching proposals for improving the working of the judiciary. He proposed that during appeals, the superior courts should only consider points of law and not reopen decisions of lower courts on facts. Secondly, the number of tiers should be decreased from the existing four to three, namely, trial, appeal and constitutional stages. Thirdly, litigants bringing unnecessary and frivolous cases should be asked to pay the costs of courts’ time. Fourthly, already provided for strict time limit on stay orders in the law should be fully enforced. Fifthly, adjournments should only be allowed in exceptional cases and then not more than once. Finally, if there is a need, the number of judges should be increased.

When the Access to Justice Programme (AJP) was introduced with the support of the Asian Development Bank in 2003, it was able to bring about several improvements. The Supreme Court was able to cut its backlog from 80,000 to 19,055 cases. The age of cases was reduced from 15 years to as low as 3 years for some district courts. Legislation was passed to establish small cases court. Some progress was also achieved in the area of judicial education and training. It is time to revisit those reforms and build on the progress achieved then. If the PTI government is able to improve the justice system in Pakistan, it would be a great service to the nation.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 16th, 2019.

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