FeaturedNationalVOLUME 16 ISSUE # 23

Pandemic pendency

The backlog of court cases has risen during the pandemic all over the world and Pakistan is no exception. Over 2,160,000 cases are pending in Pakistani courts, with 51,387 cases before the Supreme Court. The situation could have been even worse if the court had not started hearing cases through video link in May 2019, for the first time in the country’s history.

The judiciary is short of judges and the parliament has also failed to reform the decades-old justice system. According to the latest report of the apex court, over 51,000 cases are pending before the Supreme Court of Pakistan. It decided 423 cases from June 1 to 15, whereas 628 new cases were filed during the same period and the total pending cases stood at 51,387. On June 1, the pendency was at 51,182 and the principal seat of the apex court in Islamabad had decided 398 cases in two weeks; the Karachi registry disposed of 25 cases and no case was decided in three other registries at Lahore, Peshawar and Quetta during the period. The principal seat had received the highest number of cases, i.e. 281, followed by 191 at Lahore registry, 106 cases at Karachi registry, 35 cases at Peshawar registry and 15 cases were filed at the apex court’s Quetta registry from June 1 to 15.

The situation is not different in India or the US and the UK. According to an India Today report, 33.3 million cases were pending in India’s district and subordinate courts and 4.1 million in high courts on July 17, 2020. Even the Supreme Court had over 65,000 pending cases on January 1, 2021. Though there is no data on cases pending in tribunals, the 272nd report of the law commission found that just five tribunals had around 350,000 pending cases till July 2017. A recent report by Tata Trusts found that of all the pending cases in the lower courts, one in four has been pending for more than five years. The recent pandemic has massively added to the pendency. Between February 1 and August 31 last year, the Supreme Court has seen a 3.6pc rise in pending cases. Between January 29 and September 20, cases increased by 12.4pc in high courts and by 6.6pc in lower courts. Judicial delays cost India around 0.5pc of GDP annually, as estimated in 2016.

The backlog in the Crown Courts has hit a record of 56,000 cases, meaning some cases are now being timetabled for 2023, according to a BBC report. There was a backlog in the Crown Courts before the pandemic hit. Coronavirus made operations far harder because many courtrooms are too small to safely distance everyone who needs to be inside. In 2009-10, the budget for Crown Courts in England and Wales meant judges could “sit” for more than 108,000 days. Last year, it was 86,000. That roughly equates to only 45pc of available court space being used, before the pandemic hit.

Since Covid-19 was declared a national emergency in March 2020, every state and Washington, D.C., has canceled or scaled back in-person criminal court proceedings to stem the spread of the virus, reports the Time. The snarled justice system has left hundreds of thousands of families waiting for trials and other resolutions, while creating a cascade of civil rights issues for the accused. More defendants, especially those with health problems, are striking plea deals to avoid sitting in jail for an undetermined amount of time, defence attorneys say. And virtual courts are exposing the disadvantages of the poor, who are less likely to afford Internet access for court dates, as a staggering number of new criminal cases stack up.

According to the report, New York City alone is bogged down with about 49,000 pending criminal court cases, while Maine has 22,000 pending criminal cases. Florida’s court system says it needs $12.5 million to crawl out from beneath a mountain of more than 1.1 million stalled cases. California’s courts were recently given $25 million by the state’s Judicial Council to do the same. In San Antonio, a moratorium on in-person criminal jury trials has extended the pileup of indicted pending felony cases to roughly 9,500—a nearly 67pc increase since March 2020, according to Ron Rangel, a criminal district court judge in Bexar County, Texas.

According to the 2020 World Justice Project Rule of Law Index, which measures whether ordinary people can resolve their grievances through the civil justice system, Pakistan ranked 120 out of 128 countries on the rule of law. It was placed 5th out of 6 in the South Asia region. The World Justice Project (WJP), which released its annual report based on national surveys of more than 130,000 households and 4,000 legal practitioners and experts around the world, Pakistan’s overall rule of law score decreased by less than 1pc from the previous index. At 120th place out of 128 countries and jurisdictions worldwide, Pakistan fell one position in the global rank. Denmark, Norway, and Finland topped the WJP Rule of Law Index rankings in 2020. Venezuela, RB; Cambodia; and Democratic Republic of the Congo had the lowest overall rule of law scores—the same as in 2019. More countries declined than improved in overall rule of law performance for a third year in a row, continuing a negative slide toward weakening and stagnating rule of law around the world. The majority of countries showing deteriorating rule of law in the 2020 index also declined in the previous year, demonstrating a persistent downward trend. The declines were widespread and seen in all corners of the world. In every region, a majority of countries slipped backward or remained unchanged in their overall rule of law performance since the 2019 WJP Rule of Law Index.

Nepal topped South Asia (61st out of 128 countries globally), followed by Sri Lanka and India. The three countries with the lowest scores in the region were Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Afghanistan (122nd out of 128 countries globally). Countries with the strongest improvement in rule of law were Ethiopia (5.6pc increase in score) and Malaysia (5.1pc). The largest declines in the rule of law were seen in Cameroon (-4.4pc) and Iran (-4.2pc). Over the last five years, countries experiencing the largest average annual percentage drop in the rule of law were Egypt (-4.6pc); Venezuela, RB (-3.9pc); Cambodia (-3.0pc); Philippines (-2.5pc); Cameroon (-2.4pc); Hungary (-2.1pc); and Bosnia and Herzegovina (-2.1pc). The single biggest decline by factor over the past five years was Egypt’s and Poland’s score, with an average annual decline of -8.5pc and -6.8pc, respectively.

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. Only one judge is available for 62,000 people in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. In the Lahore High Court, only one judge is available for 2.2 million people. In Punjab, a single judge has a caseload of more than 660.

Pakistan’s justice system needs structural and systemic changes to minimise litigation, eliminate unnecessary delays and rationalise the workload on judges. It is the responsibility of the parliament to make laws to ensure speedy and inexpensive justice to the common people.