Elections and Bar reform

Each year, during the months of January—February, Bar associations across Pakistan hold elections to choose their office-bearers.

During this time, court surroundings and chambers are decked up with life-size (and larger) photo-posters of the candidates vying for office of the respective Bar associations. At each turn of the Court premises, each hallway, each Bar-room, there is a junta of individuals “humbly” requesting other lawyers to vote for the candidate of their choice.

The candidates (who are easy to spot, given the large posse of younger lawyers following them) are seen distributing pocket-cards and coat-badges, along with a reiteration of long-forgotten promises of Bar reform, of humility, and a new sense of purpose in Bar leadership. Then there are the periodic endorsement parties, full of self-congratulatory rhetoric, frequently delving upon the “qurbanis” rendered in the fabled Lawyer’s Movement. And, not to mention, the daily frenzy of hundreds of unsolicited text messages, endorsing one candidate or another.

Then suddenly, once the elections have concluded and the customary follow-up celebrations have been completed, everyone goes back to regular life. The posters, plastered all across the court premises, slowly start to rot in a clutter. And the elected officers become local power brokers, (allegedly) reaping personal benefits from their political success.

But year after year, this election frenzy culminates in no real reform of the Bar culture. There is no tangible move towards enforcing ethical standards in Bar practices. No palpable push towards continuing education for lawyers. No introduction of stringent standards for the enrolment of Advocates. No guidance or career-counselling for young Advocates. No coherent policy towards judicial elevation. No review of the strike culture.

And thus, as we embrace a new season of Bar elections, it is important to critically review our Bar culture and practices, in order to reform this ‘institution’ of advocacy. With a fierce belief that reform of the Bar is inextricably related to reforming the project of justice in Pakistan.

Speaking as a lawyer: let us have the humility and courage to accept that we—the lawyers as individuals, and Bar Associations as institutions—have contributed to the deprecation of our system of justice. Let us start with recognising the truth that lawyers (even more so than the judiciary!) have the loudest say in determining what cases are brought to our courts of law, how they are argued, and the manner and speed in which they are disposed of. We advise the clients about which litigation is meaningful, and what is frivolous. We assist the courts in terms of the law and procedure. And most importantly, we are the face and the reflection of our justice system among the litigants, and in society at large.

And therefore, reform, like charity, must begin at home.

Let us summon the honesty to accept that the greatest hindrance in the speedy dispensation of justice in this land, is the conduct and lack of professionalism in our legal community today.

How many times are cases adjourned because a lawyer for one of the parties does not tender appearance (being “indisposed” elsewhere)? And even when we do show up, how many times, each day, in every court, do we witness orders along the lines of “The counsel seeks additional time to file a reply; Adjourned to such and such date”? Can we really then sit in the Bar room, sip tea, and criticise the legislators or the judges for not instituting measures that reduce the back-log of cases?

Reform, like charity, must begin 
at home.

What about our level of preparation and professionalism? Do some of us not, every day, break our covenant of professionalism, culminating in orders such as, “The counsel seeks further time to prepare his case?” Is this not a grave violation of our responsibility, as officers of the court? Is this not a betrayal of the trust that our clients have placed in us? And, perhaps most importantly, is it not infidelity to the spirit of law, and to those highest ideals of justice that each of us have taken an unspoken oath to defend and protect?

And about this culture of strikes?

Despite its countless gains, one of the most disturbing legacies of the Lawyer’s Movement is this newfound belief that hooliganism, and boycotting the courts, in the best way for us—the guardians of our Constitution—to express a point or register a protest.

Over the past some years, members of our community have beaten-up police officials and media personnel, with impunity. We have thrashed district judges in Faisalabad. We prevented the Sessions Judge of Lahore from working at his post, and threatened him with physical harm. We vandalised the premises of the honourable Supreme Court. Some among us pelted stones at the courtroom of Chief Justice LHC, and refused to appear before him. We boycotted the courts in response to media scandals, and terrorism events. We have observed strikes for when a traffic warden misbehaved with a few lawyers. We shut down our courts, when a corrupt business-tycoon alleged corruption upon a prodigal judicial son. And on a cold winter afternoon, two years back, we stormed the Punjab Institute of Cardiology, beating up doctors, and causing the death of three innocent patients.

Reform, like charity, begins at home.

The genie is out of the bottle; and no one knows how to put it back again. With all the talk that surrounds rule of law and reform of judiciary in our land, perhaps more attention is required on the issue of lawyers and Bar associations acting beyond the contours of professional responsibility and ethics. And this issue must be front and centre for any and all candidates participating in the upcoming Bar elections. Because till such time that we instil a sense of constitutionalism in these officers of the courts, there can be little hope of embracing constitutionalism as our national ethos.

Let us not forget that the black coat that we wear is the same uniform that Mohmmad Ali Jinnah once wore. Let us be reminded that we are the inheritors of an unblemished tradition of professionalism. That we live and breathe in the shadow of giants. And those giants, through the construct of our law and the Constitution, have placed a solemn duty upon our undeserving shoulders. A duty that our profession and its creed will one day shine the light of law in the darkest of corners of this country. That we will be the voice of those who cannot speak, the strength of those who cannot stand, and the hope of those who no longer believe in the future of this land. That through the ideals that we represent and uphold, the oppressed and subjugated masses will once again reinherit the earth.

Let this be the mantra of the upcoming Bar elections. And let us (the lawyers) vote for candidates who represent these ideals, as opposed to those who will perpetuate the existing culture of our Bars.

Saad Rasool
The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has an LL.M. in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be reached at: saad@post.harvard.edu, or Twitter: 

The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore. He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School. He can be contacted at saad@post.harvard.edu. Follow him on Twitter