Shahbaz Sharif and I go back a long way. His first stint as Punjab’s Chief Minister from 1997 to 1999 coincided with my tenure as Governor Punjab during these years. I resigned in August 1999 and was thus spared the humiliation of being escorted out of Government House by the military on the day of the unlawful coup, much hailed by the misguided and those who should have known better, against the constitutionally elected PML (N) Government.

Some months prior to the end of his tenure in May 2018 Shahbaz Sharif asked me to chair a Legal Reforms Committee to prepare proposals for improving governance in the Punjab Province. We jointly agreed on seven terms of reference. The Additional Chief Secretary was the Secretary of the Committee which included, amongst its members, a retired Judge of the Supreme Court, the Secretary Law, the Punjab Ombudsman, an Advocate of the Supreme Court, the Secretary Prosecution, the Secretary Local Government and two senior officers of the Chief Minister’s Secretariat. During the course of the Committee’s deliberations I also co-opted the Senior Member Board of Revenue, the Finance Secretary and the Commissioner Lahore Division.

The Committee submitted its recommendations to the Chief Minister in March 2018. With some minor changes the recommendations were approved at a meeting convened by the Chief Minister which also included the concerned Provincial Ministers. Initially Shahbaz Sharif had hoped to implement the recommendations before he left office but could not do so on account of his ever-increasing involvement in issues relating to the imminent dissolution of the Provincial Assembly and his Government. The seven Committee Reports are now gathering dust in the cupboards of the Punjab Civil Secretariat. This is a pity. In the hope that the present Provincial Government may consider implementation of the recommendations contained in these seven reports notwithstanding their association with Shahbaz Sharif and the previous PML-N Government, I have decided to make the recommendations public.

One of our terms of reference was to suggest urgent measures for expediting the administration of justice. The Committee noted that the sanctioned strength of Judges in the Lahore High Court was 60. This number had been fixed by the President through a notification issued under Article 192 of the Constitution in August 2008. The number of Judges in the other three Provinces plus Islamabad was 78 including 40 in Sindh, 20 in KPK, 11 in Balochistan and 7 at Islamabad. As, amongst other things, Punjab’s population was more than that of the three Provinces and Islamabad combined the number of High Court Judges in Punjab should be between 75 and 80. Apart from population there were other factors that more than justified the increase in the number of judges in the Lahore High Court including, in particular the pendency of 140,000 cases. This pendency had not reduced to any significant extent during the last few years. One of the reasons for non-reduction was that as against the sanctioned strength of 60 there were 12 vacant posts. The Committee recommended that the Provincial Government should request the Judicial Commission of Pakistan to fill the vacancies, as per Article 175-A of the Constitution, as soon as possible, and further that the Provincial Government should propose an increase in the number of Lahore High Court Judges from 60 to 75 (or 80) and undertake to provide the required funds accordingly in case this proposal was approved.

The Committee noted that there were about 12,00,000 cases pending in the Civil and District Courts of the Punjab. The total sanctioned strength of District and Session Judges, Additional District Judges, Senior Civil Judges and Civil Judges was 2364 of which 1770 were actually working while the remaining 594 posts were vacant. The Provincial Government should request the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court to take steps for filling the vacancies as soon as possible. However, this by itself may not be enough. The Provincial Government should announce that despite resource constraints it was ready and willing to provide funds for another 216 Judges; 6 per district in the 36 districts of the Punjab along with funds required for construction of additional court rooms to accommodate the extra numbers.

Some members had reservations about approving increase in the numbers of the superior and subordinate judiciary till such time as the existing vacant posts had been filled.

The Provincial Government has already sent to the Lahore High Court for its views a draft law for establishment of an Alternate Dispute Resolution System. The proposed law provides that at the very first hearing of a civil dispute, and even later at any stage of the proceedings, the Court can, with the consent of the parties, refer the matter for alternate dispute resolution either by arbitration or mediation or conciliation or evaluation by a neutral person. The panel of neutral persons for each district is to be notified after consultation with the High Court and is to comprise advocates having at least 7 years active practice, retired or serving judges of the subordinate courts, retired civil servants, ulema, jurists, technocrats and other persons of repute and integrity having prescribed qualifications and experience. The draft law envisages establishment of ADR centres in each district. The neutral persons are to resolve the dispute within 30 days, in the case of arbitration within 60 days. The settlements arrived at through the ADR proceedings are to be made decrees of the Court and will be executable accordingly. There is to be no appeal or revision against such decrees as the process envisages that the settlements shall be arrived at with the mutual consent of the parties. In case of failure of the ADR proceedings to effect a settlement within 30 – 60 days period the dispute is to be referred back to the Civil Court. After extensive review of the draft law the Committee recommended to the Provincial Government that it should take steps to enact the law as soon as it has received the views of the Lahore High Court. The Committee noted that a similar law had already been enacted by the Federal Government for the Islamabad Capital Territory. Implementation of this proposal will greatly reduce the pressure on the civil courts.

The Punjab Province has one Provincial Ombudsman based at Lahore. Although the Provincial Ombudsman has established regional offices in the districts headed by retired officers of the rank of district or additional district judges or equivalent grades of the civil services these regional offices are not empowered to pass final orders on complaints of maladministration processed by them. Their recommendations have to be sent for final orders to the Provincial Ombudsman. The Committee noted that it would be eminently desirable if aggrieved persons were to be provided relief in the form of final orders passed by district ombudsmen who should be vested with powers similar, if not identical, with those exercised by the Provincial Ombudsman. The establishment of the district ombudsmen offices could be integrated with the office of the Provincial Ombudsman by providing for appeals to be heard and decided by the Provincial Ombudsman with the proviso that such appeals should be heard at divisional headquarters. A draft of the amending legislation was attached with the report sent to the Chief Minister. The draft law contains a schedule setting out the list of departments complaints against whom will be in the exclusive jurisdiction of the district ombudsmen. Establishment of district ombudsmen will vastly improve the access to justice of the common man. It will provide him with much cheaper and much quicker justice at his doorstep.

(To be continued)

The writer is a Senior Advocate of the Supreme Court and the Former Governor Punjab.

In the hope that the present Provincial Government may consider implementation of the recommendations contained in these seven reports notwithstanding their association with Shahbaz Sharif and the previous PML-N Government, I have decided to make the recommendations public.