Over the past ten days, our national and local media waves have been abuzz with news (and video clips) of black-coated banditry; lawyers misbehaving with judges, or (better yet) starting a brawl within courtroom premises. Fortunately, with video cameras installed in most courtrooms across Punjab (thanks to honourable CJ Mansoor Ali Shah), there is no way to hide what happened, and why.

Unsurprisingly, regardless of the nature of these incidents, or the factual narrative surrounding them, a dispassionate observer cannot help but lament at the culture of our legal profession.

This recent wave of what is colloquially known as ‘wukulagardi’, started with an argument between one Barrister Ehtesham Amir Ud Din, and an Additional Sessions Judge, Mr. Irfan Anjum. The video, which is now publicly available, shows how Barrister Ehtesham and his colleagues got embroiled in a courtroom argument with the learned judge, which turned ugly when the judge questioned the Barrister’s qualification. Heated words were exchanged, followed by the judge leaving the courtroom to retire to his chambers. Thereafter, Barrister Ehtesham and his colleague were (allegedly) invited in the chamber, when suddenly the entire situation erupted into an untowardly episode that involved screams, curse words, and the breaking of some glass. Barrister Ehtisham maintains (through a social media video message) that the learned judge initiated the unfortunate exchange, and that all allegations of ‘wukulagardi’, against him, are entirely misplaced. On the other hand, a large fraction of the media, as well as public at large, seems convinced that the Barrister and his colleague were at fault, regardless of any provocation from the judge.

Unfortunately for Barris Ehtisham, before his personal integrity could find resonance in the society at large, another video clip came to light, of some lawyer threatening to ‘lock the court room’ of a learned district judge, when the said judge refused to extend relief to the lawyer. Suddenly, for all those watching, black-coats were the ones at fault. After all, this was not the first time that such events had taken place. The public was reminded that, over the past some years, members of the legal community had beaten-up police officials and media personnel with impunity. They thrashed district judges in Faisalabad, prevented the Sessions Judge of Lahore to work at his post, and even vandalised the premises of the honourable Supreme Court. They boycotted the courts in response to media scandals, and terrorism events; observed strikes for when a traffic warden misbehaved with a few lawyers; and shut down our courts, when a corrupt business-tycoon alleged corruption upon a prodigal son.

A few individuals, on national media, braved this barrage of allegations to point out that not all lawyers can be lumped into one big category of hooliganism. That the majority of black-coats do not resort to such antics. That the legal profession represents the last bastion of justice in our land, and that despite certain condemnable episodes, the legal fraternity, as a whole, continues to represent and embody the promise of constitutionalism.

Just when such a narrative was started to attract a few supporters, an absolutely abominable video was released, in which several dozen lawyers (opposing counsels) decided to make the courtroom their personal wrestling arena. This time, there was no judicial officer in sight. No heated exchange of words between the rostrum and the bench. No relief that was denied. No personal qualification or institutional integrity that was questioned. It was just lawyers, in the midst of arguing a case (affecting the rights of litigants), who decided that it would best serve the interest of justice if everyone threw furniture at one another!

Just like that, suddenly, there no longer seemed any space for members of the legal fraternity to make an argument that ‘wukulagardi’ is some distant and isolated event, disconnected from the core of our legal profession. It was no longer plausible to deny the fact that hooliganism is a well-entrenched part of our legal culture. And that, ever since the fabled Lawyer’s Movement, our legal fraternity now recognises street brawls to be a legitimate way of expressing a point, or for registering a protest.

Sadly, the leadership of our Bar (despite rhetoric to the contrary) does not seem interested in addressing this issue. And any effort, by the judiciary, to rectify the problem, is viewed as an infringement on the ‘independence of the bar’ (whatever that means)!

Poignantly, a few months ago, when the honourable Lahore High Court suspended the license of the then Vice President of the Lahore Bar Association (under section 54 of the Legal Practitioners and Bar Councils Act, 1973), the executive committee of the Punjab Bar Council declared the honourable LHC order to be “void and without lawful authority”, and reprimanded the honourable Court for its ‘transgression and interference’ in bar council matters. This and other such moves on part of the Bar to protect their own, has lent audacity to several members of the legal fraternity, who now consider themselves above the reach of our legal framework.

Is it surprising then, that the legal fraternity is facing severe backlash in the media and the public at large? Is it a surprise that people are apprehensive of renting their premises for law firm offices? That banks shy away from extending loans to members of the legal fraternity? That there is an unwritten convention of not issuing credit cards to lawyers? Of considering them high-risk lenders, for purposes of commercial credit? That traffic wardens are apprehensive of issuing a challan to black coats? That our thanas frequently become hostage to members of the bar? That members of the public, for the most part, try to avoid all confrontation with those who are sworn to uphold the empire of justice?

Sadly, these issues are not discussed, with much vigour, in bar politics. Each year, bar elections churn out a new group of leaders, none of whom focus on reforming the bar culture. While the elected officers become local power brokers, and (allegedly) reap personal benefits from their political success, the bar electoral process culminates in no real reform of the Bar practices or culture. There is no real move towards enforcing ethical standards in Bar practices. No palpable push towards continuing education for lawyers. No introduction of stringent standards for the enrollment of Advocates. No guidance or career counselling for young Advocates. No coherent policy towards judicial elevation. No review of the strike culture.

It is time that members of the bar summon the honesty to accept that our internal culture and conduct is frequently a major hindrance in the dispensation of justice in our land. And that the project of justice, in Pakistan cannot be reformed, in any meaningful way, without a corresponding reform of the bar culture. No technology or judicial training program can help fulfill the dream of a truly transparent, efficient and effective district judiciary, till such time that it is accompanied by a corresponding demolition of the personal fiefdoms of local bar members, who will have to forego the ability to delay cases at whim, intimidate judges into granting relief, and influence the outcome of judicial process through the brute force of bar-membership.

As a new leadership of the bar takes the helm of affairs at the national, provincial and district level this month, let us all pray that they will focus their energies and efforts at reforming the bar culture, even if it offends some of their constituents. Let us pray that the profession of law will once again be seen in its rightful light – as the profession of those who created Pakistan, and those who helped shape its constitutional democracy.