There are two competing images that define Pakistani citizen’s quest for justice; on one hand is the queue of exhausted and despairing applicants waiting outside and crowded courtroom for months and years even, the second is a horror story of barbaric decisions handed down by local methods of dispute resolutions such as the jirga and panchayat systems. The government has to find a workable balance between the two, where it provides its citizens with structured and expert judicial arbitration, while also giving them access to an affordable and quick method of Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR).

The government has sought to do this by giving legal cover to the centuries-old jirga and panchayat systems by passing the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill, 2016. In the process of giving legal cover, it has sought to regulate and streamline the process to make it more equitable and to check its power to hand down abhorrent decisions. While there are some attractive features in the bill, it needs to be thoroughly considered by the provinces – as only 23 members of the National Assembly were present to pass it and it contains some very problematic clauses.

By limiting the jurisdiction of the ADRs to 23 minor civil and criminal cases which are already compoundable under present law, the bill ensures that these local systems would never have to deal with heftier problems like manslaughter or rape. While this is a good restriction, until a restriction is also placed on the kind of punishment and the limit to the fines that can be handed down, the problems will still persist. Outlandish punishments can still be given for minor offences.

Another problem is the set of neutral arbitrators that will head each ADR. While the concept of state appointed arbitrators is employed by several other countries, none of them have an open ended pool from which to pick them from – which includes “ulema”, retired bureaucrats and “other people with qualifications”. The government needs to immediately restrict the pool to members of the legal fraternity or train a set of dedicated arbitrators, a practice common in many legal systems.

The biggest problem however, one that compounds all the others before and takes the possibility of injustice into stellar realms, is that there is no right of appeal from these decisions. While it is true that the participants voluntarily decided to submit to the jirga or the panchayat’s judgement, this not a commercial arbitration handled by trained professionals where we can enforce judgement. These are local village elders, untrained and prone to biases, assisted by equally untrained arbitrators under the present law in criminal cases. If perchance, they hand down a biased or disproportionate punishment, we cannot deny the defendant a chance to redress that injustice.

The legalisation of local ADRs is an innovative solution to reducing the workload on the courts, but it needs a lot of refinement before it should become law.