F.S. Aijazuddin Published February 17, 2022 – dawn.com
IN 2011, Aitchison College, Lahore, invited three of its alumni — an industrialist, a politician, and a judge — to speak on the occasion of its 125th anniversary.
The judge was asked what would be his first decision when (not if) he became chief justice of the Supreme Court. The judge answered with judicious caution.
His fuller answer came 11 years later when on Feb 2, 2022, he — Justice Umar Ata Bandial — took oath as the 28th Supreme Court chief justice. He will retire in September 2023. His priority in office will be to reduce the backlog of pending cases inherited from his predecessors. There were 13,000 in 2001, 20,000 in 2011, rising to 53,000 in 2022. (Interestingly, human rights cases number 136, and suo motu notices despite their inordinate publicity, only 24.)
Mathematically, if Supreme Court double benches were to be allocated one case per day, it would take my lords over 20 years to clear just the backlog. Fresh cases admitted in 2022 by the present Supreme Court could expect to be heard only after 2042.
It would take over 20 years to clear just the backlog.
One recent controversial case involved a Supreme Court judge appearing before his peers. According to the new chief justice, Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s petition against the President’s Reference No. 1 of 2019 “was heard over 17 months by 10 judges”, spread over 60 hearings and forcing “the regular cause-list to be curtailed”. It finally ended on April 26, 2021, with a split verdict.
While no one would deny justice to a sitting judge, especially a Supreme Court one, should it have been at the expense of litigants less well placed than their dentist president? A presidential reference obviously took preference over the public’s patience.
Many citizens may not be aware the judge seeking redress from his peers should in another 19 months be their next chief justice. Justice Isa will succeed Chief Justice Bandial in September 2023 and serve until October 2024.
He will be followed by Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan for 282 days, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah from August 2025 to November 2027, Justice Munib Akhtar from November 2027 to December 2028, and Justice Yahya Afridi from December 2028 until January 2030. Six future chief justices in eight years — almost as long as the single tenure of the legendary chief justice A.R. Cornelius.
The improvements the new chief justice intends to implement in judicial performance are better preparedness by indolent advocates, summaries rather than voluminous indigestible submissions, less wasteful recourse to adjournments, and the instant disposal of cases that are palpably frivolous. (Would Justice Isa’s case have qualified?)
On judicial reforms, the new chief justice may find himself like Melville’s Capt Ahab, pitted against a leviathan, with only a pen for a harpoon. In the oceanography of Pakistan’s legal ecosystem, such leviathans feed on the plankton of little people, while shark-toothed lawyers gnash at the remains of their bloodied clients.
Few would disagree with the new chief justice’s remonstrance that judges are being ‘scandalised’ personally by the press rather than being ‘criticised’ for their judgements. His Lordship knows that the surest protection against such unfair demonisation is efficient performance and transparent probity.
The new Supreme Court chief justice has explained that split decisions by a bench are to be welcomed. They stem from ‘diversity’ in understanding and ‘individual perceptions’ of the same law. The public, however, would prefer its parliamentarians who draft the laws and the judiciary which interpret them to apply their minds more diligently. They might heed the advice of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes: “The law is more easily understood by few than many words. For all words are subject to ambiguity, and therefore multiplication of words in the body of the law is multiplication of ambiguity.”
Probity takes longer to harvest: it is not a cash crop. Someone once said that “where the roots of private virtue are diseased, the fruit of public probity cannot but be corrupt”. Especially so where the appropriation of land is involved.
The Islamabad High Court recently cancelled the allotment of preferential plots in Islamabad’s sectors F14/F15 to eight serving and five retired Supreme Court judges. Their concept of ‘primus inter pares’ seems a far cry from Justice Cornelius’ monastic two-room suite in Lahore’s Flashman hotel.
Is there any justification, a vulnerable public wonders, in the Ministry of Interior acquiescing to the request of the Supreme Court registrar to provide “foolproof security” to the recently retired chief justice Gulzar Ahmed? If the law is insufficient protection for a retired Supreme Court chief justice, what hope does the common citizen have?
Pakistan is a country that, like Robert Bolt’s Tudor England, is “planted thick with laws”. Yet they provide no shade of justice. To which system of laws then should the public turn? To the law of the jungle?
The writer is an author.
Published in Dawn, February 17th, 2022