The Supreme Court of Pakistan may not be making headlines with the same frequency as it was doing last year; yet with its steady judgements and thoughtful precedents, this year’s SC bench is making lasting strides in law. From initiating a conversation on model courts in civil law, to reinstating measures to clear the backlog of cases, there is good progress being made in our justice system.

A recent judgement, penned in the second week of August by Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, on the role of criminal courts is another example of the SC laying out the jurisdiction of institutions and making some very necessary clarifications in law. The case, which revolved around a raid that had led to the alleged recovery of intoxicating injections, centered on the question of whether the High Court could assume the role of a prosecutor and fill a lacuna left by the parties during the trial. In this particular setting, the High Court had set aside the trial court’s acquittal and directed that fresh samples and report of the Chemical Examiner be taken and a “fresh judgement” be passed- an order which would largely increase the involvement of the judiciary into the investigation.

Justice Mansoor Ali Shah rejects this premise in his judgement. He explores what the role of a criminal court must be in an adversarial system of justice- the prevailing system in Pakistan which is a two-sided structure under which criminal trial courts operate that pits the prosecution against the defence in front an impartial judge. In this system, Justice Shah argues that courts being a neutral arbiter, have to dispassionately weigh the evidence, rather than “embarking on a probing journey guided by emotions, sentiments and sense of self-styled justice pegged on the lofty notion of societal reform.”

These are biting words and are not without context. Justice Shah specifically mentions the judge should not enter the arena, even with good intentions, since doing so would tarnish the objectivity of the court. This comment is not coincidental- it seems a reference to the previous SC bench’s style of justice, which had a high degree of judicial activism and an inquisitorial procedure followed, where the judge often took part in the prosecution.

With this judgement, in stark contrast with its predecessor bench, the SC makes clear the role it assumes- of a neutral arbitrator of justice, rather than a social reform seeking institution. The court is correct but will the judgement change future wannabe social reformers? The court needs to make stronger, explicit, and more enforceable rules on this matter.