Our courts have, more often than not, found themselves in the middle of a whirlpool. It will be unfair to say that all such instances are direct results of a miscarriage of justice. On the other hand, it would certainly take a yes-man to declare that these situations never arise because of questionable interpretation of the law. Finding the right balance between the two perspectives is not much different from funambulism. The tiniest miscalculation can result in a fall on either side. The contempt issue emanating from Imran Khan’s comments toward a female judge has again stirred the love-hate relationship between our courts and the general public. Instead of making any politico-legal argument that may be cheered by some and booed by the rest, let us confine ourselves to debunking a few basic opinions concerning the subject matter, in essence, contempt of courts.

A kick-off for those assailing our courts is that the latter does not merit the respect being demanded as such. A supporting reference constantly rubbed in our faces is that due to our poor adherence to the rule of law, the World Justice Project has placed us at the 130th position, out of a total of 139 participants. It is indeed vogue to give a blanket statement and put all the blames on our judiciary. After all, reprimanding every outlaw is their only job, and diligent functioning could have certainly improved this appalling scorecard. However, turning our heads from the fact that this whole decaying society is wearying the country, has not helped so far, and expecting a different outcome hereon would not be prudent by any yardstick. It must be clarified that the World Justice Project did not review the jurisprudence of our stare decisis or comment on the competency and ability of our judges.

Contrary to what is being portrayed, their report was based on a vast spectrum of factors and the performance of all stakeholders. Indeed, civil and criminal justice systems were analysed but those systems are not limited to judges only. Doctors, police officers, lawyers, prison officers, and civil society work together to achieve an ideal criminal justice system. Similarly, civil justice involves numerous players. To decide rankings, the World Justice System reviewed the performance and efficacy of our legislature, bureaucrats, media personnel, and existing government framework, which equally, if not more, contributed to placing our country among the lowest ranked countries. The second most common argument forwarded by some intellectuals is the reference to past incidents where our ‘learned’ lawyers or ‘principled and ideological’ political leaders had said or done ungraceful things to our judges. It does not take an Einstein to see through it. An allegation of wrongdoing, or even proof thereof, does not justify another wrongful conduct. If anything, those giving this argument are validating the earlier contemptuous episodes. Those who know better tend to establish that judges should not have a fragile ego. Indeed. Judges must not use state machinery to stroke their egos. Countries with developed jurisprudence have accepted the notion of judicial contempt to the extent of openness to criticism and accountability. Taking it a step further, it can be safely said that judges, being literally on a higher pedestal, should be more tolerant than what is reasonably expected of any prudent man.

Given the current precarious position of our country, no one can be allowed to corrode the legitimacy and authority of constitutional organisations, especially when former presidents of the US, Donald Trump, and South Africa, Jacob Zuma, can be held in contempt matters by the courts in their respective countries. Our courts are authorised and empowered to punish any contemnor under Article 204 of the Constitution and its subordinate legislation in the shape of Contempt of Court Ordinance 2003. Such powers are necessary to assure that the judicial process does not become a mockery in eyes of the general public. Thus, concepts of civil contempt to enforce court orders and criminal contempt to deter obstruction of justice are necessary and cannot be done away with. In the same breath, courts must also realise that there is a very fine line between constitutional independence and appeasing personal vanity.

The problem arises when the courts appear to be selective in their dispensation of justice. Justice should be served in a manner where no reasonable person should walk away with questions in his mind. Comments by Muslim League-N leadership regarding our courts and military being played by PTI in their public gatherings are raising many eyebrows. Another valid viewpoint is that expressing dissenting views toward court decisions should not be treated as contempt. The fact that decisions are being overturned every day implies that they somehow lack the required legal rudiments. It is being rightly celebrated that ‘justice is not a cloistered virtue.’ On a lighter note, while addressing the court, one can learn a thing or two from an American actress, Mae West, who when asked if she was showing contempt to a particular court, replied that she was trying her best to hide it.