The importance of quick and inexpensive justice can hardly be over-emphasised. In civilised societies the state and the government make sure that their judicial system is capable of dispensing justice to the litigants as expeditiously as possible and with minimum costs to bear. They are conscious of the fact that justice delayed is justice denied, and they invariably strive to ensure that justice is not only done but is also seen to be done. The laws pertaining to dispensation of justice and functioning of courts are made in conformity with these maxims. It is universally acknowledged that peace, tranquility and progress are inextricably linked to the prevalence of efficient and inexpensive justice in the society.

Unfortunately, in our country, very little has been done to make justice quick and inexpensive with the result that in certain cases it takes years to seek justice, particularly in civil cases. The litigants have to incur heavy costs consequently. One of the main reasons attributable to dragging of cases over a long period of time is said to be the pursuit of seeking unnecessary adjournments by the litigants themselves and the institution of false cases. We often hear even superior courts complaining about this undesirable phenomenon.

However it is heartening to note that the PML-N government is taking cognizance of and being aware of the difficulties of the people in getting quick and inexpensive justice. The party has introduced two bills in the National Assembly to deal with the issues, which were passed last week. The media and intellectual circles are so pre-occupied with the unfolding political developments and the Panama Leaks case that these important pieces of legislation have gone almost unnoticed.

The first was the Cost of Litigation Act 2016, aiming at discouraging false and frivolous litigation and unnecessary adjournments. The bill empowers the judges to impose cost of litigation on those who seek adjournment of hearing in both civil and criminal cases without sufficient and unavoidable justification. It prescribes a minimum cost of Rs.5000 per adjournment in civil cases and Rs.10,000 in criminal cases. According to the bill, if during the proceedings of the case, the court finds that any assertion made by any party is false or vexatious to his knowledge, it could award special costs to the opposite side against whom such assertion has been made. The bill, after approval by the Senate, will initially only apply to Islamabad territory and will gradually be extended to other areas of the country. Hopefully the senate will also pass it without any fuss.

Another very significant law, unanimously passed by the National Assembly titled Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill 2016, gives legal and constitutional cover to the centuries old justice systems of ‘Jirga’ and ‘Panchayat’ to deal with disputes pertaining to civil matters. This will not only reduce pressure on the lower courts but would also enable people to have their disputes settled quickly without incurring costs at the local level. This law will be promulgated on trial basis in ICT and then gradually implemented in the provinces with the consent of the respective governments. These Jirgas and Panchayats however, would be different from the traditional make up which normally comprised the local notables having no knowledge about the laws. Under the system envisaged by the government the mediators known as ‘Neutrals’ will be appointed by the government in all districts in consultation with the concerned High Courts. These mediators will be picked from among the lawyers, retired judges of superior courts and subordinate judiciary, retired civil servants, social workers, religious leaders, jurists, technocrats and other people having similar qualification and experiences. The cases that will come under the jurisdiction of these entities will include: disputes between the landlord and tenant; preemption cases; land and property disputes; civil matters under the Small claims and Minor Offences Court Ordinance; commercial disputes; right or interest arising out of trade and commerce; contractual cases; disputes relating professional negligence; family disputes such as dissolution of marriage and maintenance etc.; suits for specific performance; companies and banking matters; insurance; negotiable instruments; personal injury; compensation and damages suits; patent trademark and copyright issues; disputes under the canal and drainage law; disputes for recovery of movable property or its value; dispute for separate possession of joint immovable property through partition or otherwise; disputes for redemption of mortgaged property; disputes for redemption of accounts of joint property; disputes to restrain waste and remove nuisance and other matters falling in the schedule but agreed to by the parties for settlement.

The presence of people belonging to the legal profession and retired judges in these bodies unlike the traditional informal set-up will make sure that the verdicts given are well considered and in conformity with the law of the land and the moral benchmarks of the society. These Panchayats and Jirgas will resolve the disputes through arbitration, mediation, conciliation and neutral evaluation in respect of all the disputes of civil nature as is evident from the foregoing list of subjects to be dealt by them. As per the Act the cases will be referred to the Panchayats and Jirgas by the court except in the cases where parties do not agree for alternate dispute resolution (ADR); where the court in view of the facts and circumstances is satisfied that there is no possibility of resolution of the dispute through ADR or an intricate question of law or facts is involved.

The court while referring the case to a neutral or a mediator will also fix the date for the parties to appear before him who will be under obligation to decide the case within 30 days. The concerned parties will be bound to attend the proceedings and any act of delaying the proceeding of the ADR will entail costs to be paid to the other party. After a settlement is reached between the parties, the Neutral will record it duly witnessed and signed by him and by the parties or their authorized representative or attorneys and submit it to the court which shall pronounce judgment and pass decree in terms of the settlement. In that way the settlement will have a legal sanction and the parties concerned will be under obligation to abide by the verdict. In case the parties approach the Neutral directly and reach a settlement they may make application to the court to announce the decree. The court if satisfied that the matter has been voluntarily been settled and the documents recording the settlement have been duly witnessed and signed by the parties will then announce the judgment and pass a decree in terms of the settlement. If the efforts of the Neutral fail to bring about a settlement between the parties or does not result in the award, the Neutral will submit a report to the court which will proceed with the case from the stage it was referred for the ADR. The system will work under the supervision of the court and eliminate any chances of miscarriage of justice, making it easy for the parties to the disputes to have them settled without much hassle, loss of time and money.