Law of the Twelve Tables is credited with being one of the most important founding documents of Roman Law. The latter, in turn, influenced almost every modern legal system in a multitude of ways. Roman politics of the Republican and Imperial era was characterised by a number of binary forces engaged in the power struggle. One such struggle was between patricians and plebeians. Broadly speaking, patricians were a group of ruling elite class families who controlled most of the positions of power and resources. On the contrary, plebeians were the general body of Roman citizens who were considered low class and mostly consisted of workers and farmers.

This class struggle is cited as one of the major reasons for the drafting of the law of the Twelve Tables. The latter, despite all the hype, was not some reforming or a liberating piece of legislation. Twelve Tables was a mere drafting of the already existing rights and duties of the Roman citizen and some procedures of the Roman Law. Before the drafting of Twelve Tables, the law was unwritten and exclusively in the domain of elite class who had access to it and the power to interpret it. Patricians wanted to hamper the access of plebeians to the law as an instrument of control. Plebeians demanded the drafting and publication of the law so that they have access to it and are able to get a better understanding of their rights and duties. The practice of controlling the dispensation of legal knowledge manifests itself in other power structures as well. For instance, the caste system of Hinduism gave access to religious scriptures only to Brahmins and, according to Manusmriti, if a member of lower caste even hears the text of the Vedas with an intention to memorise it, the molten lead must be poured into his ears. Therefore, people celebrate the drafting and hanging of Twelve Tables in the Roman Forum as a victory of downtrodden.

However, the drafting would have had little to no impact on the power structure and legal knowledge bases of the plebeians. The reason was the low literacy rate in Roman times. While there is a dearth of credible figures, even generous estimates of literacy rates have been well below 20 per cent among adult men. As the state did not subsidise education, one can safely assume that the level of literacy among plebeians would have been more deplorable. Since most of the common folk could not read the Twelve Tables, their formulation and publication would have been, more or less, inconsequential.

The common Pakistani living in the globalised twenty-first century is not much differently situated than a plebeian of the Roman times. As was the case with Twelve Tables, laws in Pakistan are not some ‘secretive document’. They are published in the official gazettes and are ‘accessible’ to the general public. However, the de facto state of affairs is not at all different from Roman times. Even with the bar of being qualified as a literate person set very low, the literacy rate in Pakistan stands at an abysmal 58 per cent. This means that 42 per cent of the people can read neither the constitution nor the law.

The monopoly of the few over the legal knowledge has been further solidified, by excluding a large chunk of the above 58 per cent, by keeping the text of the laws in English. The laws drafted by the British as colonisers were drafted in English for obvious reasons. This was the language of the colonial masters and laws were enacted as an instrument of control. However, after the creation of Pakistan, the foreign elite were replaced by the local one. As a result, the power structure built during the British Empire remained intact for the most part.

According to Article 251 of the Constitution of Pakistan, the national language of Pakistan is Urdu and arrangements were supposed to be made for Urdu being used for official and other purposes within 15 years from the commencing day of the constitution. The article went further allowing the provinces to use provincial languages in addition to the national language. A three-member bench of the Supreme Court of Pakistan in 2015, headed by then Chief Justice Jawad S Khawaja, directed the government to ensure Urdu was used as official language without unnecessary delay. The judgment stressed that in the governance of the federation and the provinces, there is hardly any necessity for the use of the colonial language, which cannot be understood by the public at large.

More than three years have passed since the judgment; however, it is yet to be implemented. Even the basic laws like Pakistan Penal Code, Civil Procedure Code, Criminal Procedure Code, Contract Act, among many others, have not been translated into Urdu. It is not in the interest of the western educated elite of Pakistan for the judgment and the aforementioned article of the Constitution to be implemented. The monopoly of the few might get in danger if the law and the ‘general will’ take its course. As of today, the ‘patricians’ of Pakistan have been successful in preserving their base of power. Will it change any time in future is hard to tell.


The writer is a practicing lawyer and has an LLM from The University of Chicago.