In a series of dreadful events, this week, the legal fraternity in Punjab found itself at loggerheads with members of the judiciary. And the consequences of this stand-off threaten to further weaken the teetering project of justice in our land.

As it turns out, the instant controversy was sparked when a district judge, in Lahore, mustered the audacity to uphold the law as oppose to granting unwarranted relief to the incumbent Vice President of the Lahore Bar Association. In response, the worthy Vice President reacted as any thug worth his salt would have: by abusing the judicial officer, tearing his order to pieces, and threatening him with dire physical and professional consequences.

Why? Because Brutus is an honorable man!

It would have been ‘business as usual’ in our district courts, if the issue had just stopped there. After all, lawyers threatening judicial officers (as well as other citizens) is nothing out of the ordinary in Pakistan. But the district judge was imprudent enough to lodge a complaint, in this regard, to the Chief Justice of the honorable Lahore High Court. And the honorable Chief Justice was naïve enough to adjudicate upon the said complaint, in accordance with law.

To this end, section 54 of the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act, 1973 empowers the superior courts to “make an order for the suspension of the advocate from practice”, in case “he has committed an act of grave indiscipline”. For this purpose, a ‘supervisory committee’ of the Lahore High Court, comprising the honorable CJ and six other brethren judges, issued a show-cause notice to the concerned officer of the bar, who did not bother turning up when summoned by the Court. Because Brutus is honorable man.

Thereafter, the honorable judges of the LHC, in exercise of their statutory power, temporarily suspended his license to practice, while referring the matter to the Punjab Bar Council, for further appropriate action, under section 41 of the Bar Councils Act.

Immediately thereafter, in an almost reactionary manner, the executive committee of the Punjab Bar Council declared the honorable LHC order to be “void and without lawful authority”, and reprimanded the honorable Court for its ‘transgression and interference’ in bar council matters. Members of the Bar Council argued that since a ‘supervisory committee’ finds no mention in the law, it cannot pass any order against the lawyers. These members of the bar council ignored the fact that, regardless of nomenclature (which is an administrative issue), seven honorable Judges who had decided the issue represented the LHC.

Nonetheless, Brutus remained an honorable man.

Adding insult to injury, the Bar Council convention, held over the weekend, voted that the honorable Chief Justice had committed “misconduct” for having had the courage to stand up to members of the legal fraternity, and should “resign” as a result. Not just that, the participating lawyers demanded that the entire “supervisory committee” of LHC should be disbanded, and all its decisions be declared illegal.

In almost the same breath, another group of lawyers, over some petty issue, decided to physically thrash a clerk of the district courts, prompting a large number of district court clerks to stage a sit-in, in front of the LHC, against repeated instances of ‘vukla-gardi’.

Yet, till date, no action has been taken by any Bar Council against any of the lawyers involved. Not even when clear CCTV footage from Ferozwala Bar showed blatant episodes of vukla-gardi.

And Brutus continues to be an honorable man!

How did we arrive at this woeful juncture in our culture of justice? How has our legal fraternity – the very profession entrusted with defending our Constitutional freedoms and the spirit of law – descended into a disfigured group of violent vigilantes? Are these rowdy outlaws the face of our justice system? Has our journey towards ‘rule of law’ created a monster that is more powerful than the law itself? Is this betrayal of our legal ethos not more sinister coming from the very defenders of our Constitution? And is it not imperative that any further steps towards the rule of law must necessarily begin with a reform of the cultural of vukla-gardi?

The lawyer’s movement let this genie out of the bottle; and no one knows how to put it back again. During the 2007 movement, encouraged by the bar leadership of its time, members of the district bar found themselves center-stage in a national drama. Boycotting of the courts, street hooliganism, blocking the roads, even thrashing police officials… were all seen as outburst of some constitutional fervor, in the pursuit of justice.

Once the movement was over, members of the bar no longer wanted to return to the barracks; they had tasted blood, and were not unwilling to go back to the humdrum of civilized legal practice again.

Over the past some years, members of the legal community – one that I belong to – have beaten-up police officials and media personnel with impunity. We have thrashed district judges in Faisalabad, Gujranwala and Lahore. We broke the windows of the courtroom of Chief Justice LHC. We boycotted the courts in response to media scandals, and terrorism events. We have observed strikes for when a traffic warden misbehaved with a few lawyers. We shut down our courts, when two lawyers got into a rift with a local Assistant Commissioner. And then there was the time when our barbarianism even desecrated the apex cathedral of justice.

Brutus, all the while, remained an honorable man.

While on the point, let us clarify that this idea of ‘independence of the bar’ (in which even the Chief Justice cannot interfere) finds no mention in the Constitution or the law! Created as an afterthought to ‘independence of the judiciary’, this idea has been conjured out of thin air just to protect the personal fiefdoms of those who participate in bar politics. And it is time to extinguish this war-cry of ‘independence of bar’, at the altar of ‘supremacy of law’.

Bar’s hooliganism was somehow condoned by the bench during the Iftikhar Chaudhary years. When the lawyers beat up a police official, the court suspended the policeman and registered an FIR against him, while the lawyers went home whistling. When Chief Justice LHC courtroom was attacked, Iftikhar Chaudhary court brokered a quiet compromise between the parties, instead of holding the culprits accountable. And as a result, bar councils today seem to have become more ‘powerful’ than the bench itself.

This is a defining moment for members of the bench and the bar. Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, and his court, is in the midst of a worthy battle against such members of the bar who are bent upon entrenching this culture of illegality in the profession of law. And the honorable LHC needs all the support it can get. Especially from senior members of the bar, as well as honorable judges of the Supreme Court.

If the LHC, or the honorable Chief Justice, is forced to relent upon their stance today; if entrenched personal interests, within the bar, are allowed to overpower express provisions of the law; if a compromise of sorts is reached, resulting in the culprits going unpunished; if officer-bearers of the bar are allowed to demand resignation of honorable judges any time that the are denied personal relief, then we will forever surrendered the empire of law at the feet of individual fiefdoms. Then the entire project of justice will become subservient to the will of a few black coats. And the independence of judiciary, as well as supremacy of the Constitution, will become nothing more than prisoner caged in the dungeon below the Bar Room. An entity that only sees the light of day when members of the bar are feeling particularly gracious.

The truth is that Brutus is no longer an honorable man. In fact, he is fast becoming a downright thug! With all the talk that surrounds rule of law and independence of judiciary in our land, perhaps attention is required on the issue of bar councils and associations acting beyond the contours of professional responsibility and ethics. Because till such time we instill a sense of constitutionalism in these officers of the courts, there can be little hope of embracing constitutionalism as our national ethos.