Last week the Supreme Court took notice of the increasing instances of rowdy behavior displayed by lawyers in courts and asked the provincial bar councils to present reports of action taken on complaints received against lawyers. The problem had grown worse after a successful movement for the restoration of the judiciary when lawyers as a group acquired ‘influence’ in society and became one of the pressure groups running the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The high expectations of the public to get the ‘broken’ justice system fixed turned out to be misplaced. Both the bar and the bench fell prey to the heady effects of a rare victory and blinded their eyes to the miseries of ordinary litigants. The superior judiciary, too focused on reclaiming their legitimate domain from the encroachments of the executive while lawyers, the heroes of the movement, started behaving as a mob with impunity. The incidents of lawyers thrashing policemen, beating up journalists and locking up judges in their chambers made the headlines and a call for strike became a matter of daily routine. The worsening of standards of professional responsibility amongst lawyers led to the further deterioration of the quality of justice in our courts.

Several explanations account for the decline in legal ethics. The story begins with the sorry state of legal education in the country. A couple of private law schools impart education of good quality but the majority of lawyers are the product of public sector universities and the affiliated private law colleges. It is disheartening that the module of legal ethics counts for only a 20 mark exam question during three-year law studies. The course is not taught in a manner to enable students to internalize the code of professional conduct and an average student passing out of law school is unaware of his responsibilities towards the client and the court. The written exam conducted for grant of license by the provincial bar councils doesn’t test the attitude and skills of future lawyers and has been reduced to a 100 marks memory-based test. Six years ago when this scribe appeared for the viva after the written exam, only two questions were asked. One concerned whether I had any lawyer in my family and the second related to my senior lawyer for the period of apprenticeship.

Very little attention has been paid to enhance the standard of legal education. At the National Judicial Conference 2011, I participated in a session on the subject of legal education. The session was presided by Honorable Justice Iqbal Hameed ur Rehman, the then Chief Justice of the Islamabad High Court and the representatives of the Pakistan Bar Council, responsible for overhauling the law curriculum from time to time, were also present. Some excellent papers were presented and useful recommendations were formulated but until today there has been no follow-up to initiate the process of reforming legal education.

After obtaining the law degree and bar license, the lawyer enters the realm of law practice. From this stage the regulatory role of bar associations and bar councils becomes very critical, in which they have miserably failed. The politics of elections becomes a hindrance in the way of taking disciplinary action against those lawyers accused of professional misconduct. Lawyers seek adjournments unreasonably, thus prolonging litigation in courts, tutor witnesses to win cases and also attempt to pressurize judges to get decisions of their choice. On top of it all, if ever a proceeding for action against a lawyer is considered, the fraternity will come to threaten with the boycott of courts. A senior retired judge of the Lahore High Court revealed that when he as Chairman of the committee to decide on Supreme Court Bar license seeking applications, deferred the case of an applicant for six months, an eminent lawyer who wields influence through his large group in the bar association elections showed displeasure. The latter’s annoyance was based on the apprehension that, in such a situation, his group will lose support amongst lawyers. The judge later recused himself from the committee.

Last, but not less important, the degeneration of the culture of the legal profession has partly to do with the decadence of moral norms in society on the whole. Civic education is not taught in primary and secondary schools to instil the essential values of citizenship. Teachers seldom talk beyond textbooks in classrooms. Professionals are not trained to grapple with ethical dilemmas. To make matters worse, people at the helm of affairs do not make for exemplary leadership to serve as role models.

Tailpiece: The former Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, Khawaja Muhammad Sharif, appeared to argue in defense of Mumtaz Qadri who is convicted of murdering the Punjab Governor in 2011. He thundered in the courtroom saying that Salman Taseer was a non-practicing Muslim and objected to blasphemy laws, and thus his client should be pardoned. What logic, what skills are these? On this occasion, hundreds of lawyers praising Mumtaz Qadri thronged the court. A day later, Ghulam Bilour, the leader of the secular ANP, announced head money for the owner of Charlie Hebdo, the satirical French magazine whose head quarters were recently attacked in Paris. Where, it is prudent to ask, are we heading after all?