The Senate gave a standing ovation to the Chief Justice of Pakistan, Anwar Zaheer Jamali, when he spoke before the house – the first time such an instance has taken place in Pakistani history. The admiration of the senate was well founded; the ‘intra-institutional dialogue’ has seen the Senate Chairman visit the Supreme Court, and now the Chief Justice has returned the favor, all of which contributes to a better understanding of issues that beset the justice system and possible solutions.

The Chief Justice’s speech was an honest appraisal of the justice system which, judging by the expressions of the senators came as a surprise. The gist of his address can be summed up in one of his sentences: “There is little point in having fine laws when the organizations responsible for their implementation are essentially dysfunctional”. It is heartening to see the Chief Justice accept the flaws – compared to previous justices who would rather paper over the cracks – as it is the first step towards improvement.

Yet improvement, at least in a drastic sense, needs innovation and boldness, which the senate and the Chief Justice fell short of. Issues of implementation were identified – corruption, lack of administrative and technical capacity, scarcity of resources and criminality – but this is common knowledge amongst legal circles, the solution to any of this was not provided. The Senate chairman’s suggestions – the only reformative aspect discussed – were summarily dismissed by the Chief Justice, eager not to rock the boat; which is disappointing since some of the suggestions merited at least a longer discussion. Dismissing the concept of scheduling orders – a definite schedule for trials – by saying that “delays were caused by various factors and that there was nothing wrong with the system” is evasive, unsatisfactory and detrimental to an open discussion.

The same is true for the Chief Justice’s most important revelation; 80% of disputes are solved in informal and unchecked methods of dispute resolution such as jirgas and panchayats. Instead of treating this fact as a merely statement of the justice system’s failure, the Chief Justice and the Senate should have formulated ways of using this information. Other nations have formalized what is known as ‘alternative methods of dispute resolution’ to provide quick and cheap justice and to lessen the burden on the judiciary; official mediators, specialized tribunals and arbitration are widespread in the world. Perhaps panchyats and jirgas could be formalized and monitored too.

Regardless of these concerns this initiative by the Supreme Court and Senate is welcome, reform of the justice system is long overdue. A singular visit by the Chief justice is not going to be enough; a commission needs to research the possible reforms.