Follow Us:

A Pakistani lawyer’s letter to litigants

There is good reason why lawyers pray in earnest that those they hold dear never end up finding themselves inside a katcheri.

ASFAND YAR WARRAICH |

Dear Litigants,

First off, my sincerest condolences: your position is certainly not an enviable one. If you are an experienced hand, you must have already understood why I say so, and might even be vigorously nodding along right now, but, if you are relatively new to navigating the labyrinthine hallways of our justice system, allow me to explain why I feel so obligated to extend my deepest sympathies. Over the course of the coming years, your spirit shall be broken, your mind bamboozled, your patience tried and tested, your savings depleted, and, worst of all, your faith in fairness all but vanquished. What is about to follow here shall in no way ease your burdens and may just leave you in a greater state of despair, yet, what it may offer is some sense of what is actually going on.

There is good reason why lawyers pray in earnest that those they hold dear never end up finding themselves inside a katcheri.

Come to our barrooms on a regular basis and you will automatically become privy to bits of our hottest gossip (we are, quite contrary to the calling of our profession, not a particularly discreet lot). Most of this will be shoptalk, everyday politics and misogyny on steroids, punctuated of course with the most delightful of invectives, but, sprinkled here and there, you shall also find rumours of a more sinister nature. You might hear about lawyers who specialise in ‘managing’ judges, some of whom are said to have in their possession entire registers of judicial officers with flexible consciences, along with their going rates even. You may hear about certain irregularities or illegalities committed by certain justices in cahoots with certain parties. And, you will invariably hear of the esteemed office-bearers of our bar councils and associations — the staggering amounts they have spent on their elections and the myriad ways in which they are earning it all back tenfold.

This, however, is all rumour-mongering of course — idle chitter and chatter, or, to wrap it up in some neat legalese: hearsay. Now, let me tell you things that I can attest are facts, based on nearly six or so years of practice. In district courts in Lahore, it takes roughly Rs 1,500 to stop the delivery of notices to an opposing party in any case. Courier receipts and adverts in newspapers can be faked or fudged, while the court’s server may submit a bogus report stating that the summons was refused. By the time the other party gets to know anyone has filed a case, it will already have proceeded ex-parte on account of their absence and will most likely have reached the execution stage. Similarly, if you slyly slip a 100-500- rupee note to a reader, he might be able to secure you a very desirable date (long or short, you take your pick).

This can be seen happening in the plainest of plain sight, sometimes while judges are sitting inside the courtroom. And if these are the kind of services you get for a pittance, just imagine what you can avail if you are willing and able to pay more. The bar and the bench both play their due part in creating and sustaining this hellish reality. We lawyers are a professional mafia unlike any other, who, with astonishing regularity and absolute impunity, beat up or threaten judges and court staff, intimidate witnesses, aid convicts in fleeing from court premises, swindle clients, bribe public officials, and the list goes on (all this when we are not busy attacking hospitals or calling for the most baseless strikes). Equally culpable of malfeasance are said to be the presiding officers of our courts (although, before the canons of contempt of court are aimed either at me or this paper, I must clarify that it is not all judges who stand accused as such, only the black sheep amongst the flock, though why their white-woolled colleagues seem to be doing so painfully little to salvage their institutional reputation is beyond me).

Judicial lethargy abounds, complaints of misconduct are common, and in superior courts, the wretched term ‘face value’ is now perceived to be synonymous with the grant or denial of relief. You will be told that our laws and procedural codes are outdated and that there is a desperate need for ‘systemic’ and ‘structural’ reform, but here, we are being a bit disingenuous. The Civil Procedure Code may be from 1908 and the Criminal Procedure Code may be from 1898, but there is not a single provision in either that allows judges to adjourn cases week after week and month after month without any substantial progress. Special laws even have strict time limits. All family cases are to be disposed of in six months max. Defamation suits in 90 days. So, why do your cases linger on and on still?

The reasons are complex and manifold: basic shortfall of resources, zero case management, barsponsored thuggery, an entrenched culture of approving inexcusable adjournments and entertaining frivolous petitions and applications, frequent and unexplainable transfers of judicial officers at the whims of high court chief justices (and other people who hold sway over them), and a total lack of accountability, for much like our dear armed forces, the superior judiciary too has come to be treated as a sacred cow — unanswerable to anyone but itself. Lastly, and since no discussion is complete without its mention, there is of course the undying issue of corruption — endemic to every government department, normalised at every stratum. We are a country running on kickbacks, commissions and intricate systems of nepotism and patronage that disguise themselves as harmless networking. Backs are being scratched all around, and bribes are no longer deemed to be bribes — mostly because everyone has taken to calling them ‘kharcha pani’.

On a recent visit to an old ustad, I lamented that while our high courts increasingly act like durbars, our lower courts seem to be turning into literal bazaars. “Chotu, yeh bazaar nahi,” he corrected me, “mandi hai mandi.” Bear in mind however, that all markets are driven by demand — in this case, dear litigants, it is often yours. And with that, I believe I should rest my case. I wish you the best of luck, and a miracle or two. — Sincerely, a lawyer.