Clearing the backlog (on judiciary) -DAWN

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NOW that the discussion relating to seniority and the principles of judicial appointment has somewhat subsided, even if only for the time being, it is perhaps an opportune time to discuss another issue which affects the credibility of the judicial institution, as well as the litigants and citizens at large. This is the issue of judicial backlog.

It has been reported by Geo TV that there were 51,138 cases pending in the Supreme Court as of June 2021, whereas this newspaper had reported that in the previous year, that is in May 2020, the number of pending cases stood at 44,658. Overall, in terms of various news items that have appeared from time to time, it seems that the pendency of matters in court are increasing over time, and on the whole, as per Geo TV, 2,159,655 cases were pending in various courts in Pakistan as of June 2021.

In all honesty, these revelations are shocking and unfortunate but hardly surprising or a coincidence. A backlog of cases at any level of the judicial set-up is a problem with potentially multiple adverse consequences, and it is in the face of such adversity that remedial measures are needed.

The backlogs signify that the number of cases being filed at any level of judicial functioning is greater than what the sanctioned judicial officers can handle or tackle at any given time. They are also indicative of the fact that the procedures that are in place may actually be delaying the delivery of justice, as opposed to catalysing its dispensation. In addition to this, it may also signify that the number of judges appointed are inadequate, or that the quality of judgements is such that they are routinely prone to be appealed at higher forums.

Thousands of cases are pending in the courts.

A simple Google search will show a plethora of articles and informative pieces which will tell you what the issues are and how they can be resolved. Some will tell you that we need better baseline tests and vetting for the induction of judges along with a greater number of judges, a few will say that imposing costs on litigants who seek to delay the process would encourage early disposals, whereas others will have you believe that simplifying the procedure would allow for quicker and swifter decision-making. All of these points of view have a certain degree of merit to them, and as such, should be considered sympathetically.

However, the problem isn’t that we are short of solutions, or of people like myself who are willing to dish out unsolicited and perhaps unwelcome advice on how things can be improved. The problem lies in whether clearing backlogs and making sure they remain cleared is in fact a judicial priority.

The fact of the matter is that whenever a new chief justice of Pakistan takes oath, there are salutary mentions of clearing backlogs and making the judiciary more responsive. It’s almost instinctive now, or perhaps, for lack of a better word, customary. But what real measures are in fact taken to effectively reduce the pendency of cases in court? Of those measures that are actually proposed, which are wholeheartedly implemented? And of those which have been implemented, how many are enforced long enough to actually bring about real change in the system?

The answer to these questions will bring home a single point, that is that the long-term solutions for curtailing backlogs cannot be attained by any single chief justice. Curtailing backlogs, and the methods by which that will be done, has to take place with the consensus of the entire superior judiciary, not just the top judge in the apex court. The reason is simple.

Practically speaking, a particular chief justice is only there for a few years, at best, and after his or her retirement, a new judge is appointed to take his or her place. If the said judge has different priorities, any grunt work and monumental policy shifts made in the previous tenure will remain just that.

In order for the work in one chief justice’s tenure to spill over and be taken forward in the next, it is imperative that the superior judiciary get together and unanimously agree on a large-scale programme to effectively curtail backlogs over a targeted number of years, or even decades. In short, it must be a priority not simply for the chief justice, but for the future chief justices as well.

As such, if there were a single request that I would seek to humbly make to the incoming chief justice of Pakistan when he takes over on Feb 2, 2022, if I may take such liberty, it would be not only to make clearing judicial backlogs a priority in his own tenure, but also to forge a consensus so as to ensure that it remains a priority for many chief justice tenures to come.

The writer is a Karachi-based lawyer.