Pakistan’s top judge has lifted the lid on a poorly kept secret — 80 per cent of disputes in the country are settled by the unregulated informal justice sector, such as jirgas and panchayats, while the state justice system tackles only 20 per cent of the disputes. Needless to say, the statement by the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Anwar Zaheer Jamali, in his historic address to the Senate on November 3 hardly caught anyone by surprise.
Our media keeps us posted periodically on just how large a backlog of cases is pending in the superior and subordinate courts, awaiting adjudication. A justice system that is overburdened by a steady stream of fresh cases piling upon the undecided ones is further stymied by staffing shortages. The wheels of justice, therefore, move agonisingly slowly, frustrating the litigant public beyond endurance.
It is small wonder, then, that informal mechanisms of dispensing justice are firmly entrenched in Pakistan, especially in the vast swathes of the rural hinterland and tribal territories, with people finding it far easier to get their issues resolved by councils of village elders at their doorstep, where speed is the name of the game. This stateless justice system sometimes hands down outrageous verdicts that jolt society and spark widespread outrage — karo-kari and swara cases being the most glaring examples. Jirgas and panchayats are known to have gone so far as to pronounce death sentences. No one in their right mind can back this jirga-sanctioned murder. To counter this impulse to take the laws into one’s own hands, it is ever more important to extend the state’s writ in all corners of the country. Justice must be made more accessible and cheaper for the citizenry so that it does not have to resort to an outdated mode of getting justice. That said, one cannot argue with the utility of informal conflict-resolution structures for handling petty issues outside of court. Nevertheless, the current state of affairs does require the urgent institution of far-reaching legal reforms. What is unfortunate, though, is the current government’s apparent apathy towards this all-important area of governance.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 6th, 2015.