Justice, in a constitutional paradigm, forms the bedrock of a free and peaceful society. It is the very virtue that anchors a people to the fundamental rights regime, and extends the fullest promise of democracy to the ‘tired, poor, and huddled masses, yearning to breathe free again’. The guarantor of this justice, and thus the rope that connects the ‘Ship of State’ to the anchor of our Constitution, is the legal community – the bench and the bar. And for this reason, as has become clichéd over the past some years, the very survival of our democratic ethos is inextricably tied to a functioning, efficient and conscientious bench and the bar.

It is also important to be cognizant of the fact that the idea of ‘justice’, specifically in a country like Pakistan, is not simply constrained to the headline cases being argued before the superior courts. As widely reported in numerous recent studies, such cases form only a minuscule fraction of the corpus of litigation being undertaken in Pakistan. Consequently, the malady of the project of justice in Pakistan is most fundamentally linked to a reform of the district judiciary and the bar. And it is in the harrowing halls of district courts and bar-rooms that justice, and all semblance of jurisprudence, is being butchered with impunity.

Just over the past few weeks, in Lahore alone, cases of blasphemy, under Section 295-C of PPC, have been registered against those who sold Nahj-al-Balagah (book authored by Maula Ali (A.S.)). Some months back, a 5-year old child was charged with attempted murder, and dragged to the court, in blatant violation of Sections 82 and 83 of PPC. Judges are frequently beaten up by ‘wukulagards’. A police constable was slapped, in Ferozewala Kachehry, by a lawyer who was fully supported and protected by the Bar. Arshad Maliks of our judicial system continue to fester in its roots. And almost every week there is fresh condemnation of district court judges, by the honourable Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Is the reason for perpetrating atrocities, in the name of justice, some fundamental fault in our legal code? Have the laws of Pakistan lost all nexus to principles of compassion and virtue? Or is it, instead, a problem of interpreting and applying otherwise reasonable provisions of law, in a manner that perpetrates cruelty and injustice? Have our lawyers and judiciary, specifically in the district courts, themselves become the greatest impediment in the dispensation of justice? Have they forgotten the age-old and erudite principles of common law that serve as a beacon for judicial interpretation? Or were they never taught these ideas in law schools or subsequent training? Is there something wrong with who we are as human beings, or is it merely a problem of entrusting justice in the hands of an ill-trained and uneducated lot?

A large part of the problem stems from a rot in our legal education, the manner in which we grant the license of practice to the lawyers, as well as the manner in which we appoint and train the district judiciary. The truth is that law schools across Pakistan, with very few exceptions, have been excessively delinquent in educating and training the men and women with whom our project of justice could be entrusted. Absence of teachers, low attendance, and repetition of age-old examination papers (which can be passed through rote-learning) have become permanent features at most public law schools across Pakistan. When such law graduates arrive at district courts, a license for advocacy is granted without any rigorous testing, interview, or selection process. To make matters worse, under the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act 1973, the requirement of a minimum of two-year experience in district courts, along with an interview, has become a mere formality in the granting of a license to practice before the High Courts. And owing to the mechanics of bar politics, which thrives on expanding the voter-base by extending favours to young lawyers, there is virtually no impediment or selection criterion for any law graduate to be granted the license to practice before our courts of law.

On the other end of the spectrum, the selection of district judiciary, from among these very lawyers, is also done through a process that is unbefitting the entrustment of judicial authority. From a structural perspective, in Punjab for example, upon selection through a weak testing process, members of the district judiciary come within the auspices of the Punjab Judicial Academy (PJA), formed under the Punjab Judicial Academy Act, 2007 (Act). The PJA, responsible for “imparting training to the judicial officers and court personnel with a view to develop their capacity, professional competency and ethical standards for efficient dispensation of justice”, works under the control and supervision of the honourable Lahore High Court (LHC). Its functions include imparting “training”, developing “skills”, conducting “examinations”, promoting skills of “judicial reasoning” and “ethical values” (section 4 of Act), in a manner that is “at par with international standards” (section 5 of Act). And a Board, headed by the honourable Chief Justice of LHC, working through the Director-General of PJA, is responsible for laying down the “policy and program” for PJA, and for evaluating its “performance” (section 8 of Act).

Given this paradigm, there can be little cavil with the proposition that neither the law nor the structure of our legal education is deficient. What is abominably lacking, however, is the implementation of this law, and through it, an improvement in the quality of judicial dicta emanating from the district judiciary. Even if it is conceded, for a moment, that fixing legal education in our public universities is part and parcel of the broader reform of the education sector (which cannot be done overnight), there is little excuse for why our judicial academies cannot develop a rigorous curriculum and oversight process that enriches the virtue of our jurisprudence. Even if (unforgivably) we are unable to produce lawyers who understand the illegality of prosecuting a 5-year old for murder, we can at least attempt to build a brand of judges who wear the law on their sleeves.

The system of justice in our land will not be fixed through empty slogans and sporadic introspection. The virtuosity of our laws shall not be reclaimed simply through the prosecution of high profile NAB cases. Society’s faith in the wisdom of our bench shall not be restored through the quantum of disposal by the superior courts. Under the existing law, the responsibility of training and improving the district courts squarely with the superior judiciary; and there is no excuse that our honourable judges can hide behind to evade responsibility. For this reformation process to start, all that the bench has to do is look inside its own sleeve.

Justice, like divinity, lives in small things. And these small things, concerning small issues, of small importance, amidst small voices in our small towns, are waiting for an immediate and deliberate focus of big men and women, sitting in their big cathedrals of justice, dealing with significant matters of national importance.