NationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 10

Challenges for the new Chief Justice

Justice Gulzar Ahmed has taken oath as the 27th Chief Justice of Pakistan. Like his predecessors, he faces a daunting challenge to reform the legal system of the country. Besides, he will have to defuse tensions with the army and the government after recent verdicts in cases of extension of the Army Chief’s tenure and former President General (retd) Pervez Musharraf’s high treason trial.

Experts expect the return of judicial activism during his tenure. He was a member of a five-judge bench which had disqualified former Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif in the Panama Papers case. He was also part of a seven-member bench which had convicted the then Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani in a contempt case for not implementing the apex court’s Dec 16, 2010 judgment on the National Reconciliation Ordinance. He authored a judgment in the ex-CJP Iftikhar Chaudhry manhandling case in which police officers had been jailed.

He issued strict orders in land grabbing and encroachment cases in Karachi and banned commercial activities in residential areas. Over 500 illegal buildings, wedding halls and cinemas were demolished in Karachi on his order. He presided over the bench which convicted and disqualified Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz leader Talal Chaudhry in a contempt case. One of the important tasks before the new CJP is to consider regulating the suo motu jurisdiction of the Supreme Court under the Article 184(3) of the Constitution. A working paper containing proposed amendments to the Supreme Court Rules, 1980, to regulate the suo motu exercise of the apex court and to provide for intra-court appeal is also under active consideration of the full court, consisting all judges of the Supreme Court.

In his speech at the full-court reference to bid farewell to Justice Asif Saeed Khosa, the new CJP spelled out his vision by highlighting the need of building civic infrastructure keeping in line with the time and pace of the ever-progressing world. He emphasised the need of taking humanistic approach at all levels, not only by the State and in performance of its functions but at all levels of society for a healthy growth of the nation. He urged State functionaries to focus and ensure deliverance to people. “Corruption and illegalities in all departments of the State need to be seriously addressed and eliminated and persons involved in such activities be dealt with deterrence for this is the most basic and fundamental scourge which retards growth of the country,” he added.

The new CJP will have to work to end the general perception that justice is expensive and delayed in the country. The judiciary is short of judges and the parliament has failed to reform the decades-old justice system. 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 was the worst in the region. It was ranked the last in the six regional countries and stood at 105th out of 113 countries in the world. Over 40,000 cases were pending with the Supreme Court, over 300,000 with the five High Courts and about two million with the lower courts 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 with the Supreme Court almost doubled and reached the highest level for the last 15 years. In 2006, the number of pending cases before it was 13,724. Today, it is almost thrice of it. 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. 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, says the World Bank report. Only one judge is available for 62,000 people in the Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the Lahore High Court, only one judge is available for 2.2 million people. In the Punjab, a single judge has a case load of more than 660.

Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed will have to address causes that contribute to delay in disposition of cases at all levels of the judicial hierarchy. “There are 1.9 million pending cases in the country with only 4,000 judges,” former CJP Asif Saeed Khosa had observed few days before taking oath as the top judge in January, 2019. “Even if all judges of the Supreme Court, High Courts and subordinate judiciary work day and night for 36 hours a day, they cannot clear the cases. When we ask the government to increase the number of judges, so that justice can be delivered promptly, they reply to us they are short of funds,” he had observed.

Bars have reservations over the appointment of judges as well as Supreme Judicial Council proceedings against two superior court judges. Tackling the two issues would be a challenge for the new CJP. He will have to bring structural and systemic changes to the judiciary to minimise litigation, eliminate unnecessary delays and rationalise the workload on judges. As work on judicial reforms is in the final stage, it is hoped the government will complete the process at the earliest to help the judiciary complete its job and fulfill its own promise of inexpensive and speedy justice. It will be a great service to the nation.