. . . . . .  

In 2011, Aitchison College, Lahore, invited three of its alumni - an industrialist, a politician, and a judge - to speak on the occasion of its 125th anniversary.

The judge was asked what would be his first decision when (not if) he became the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The judge answered with judicious caution.

His fuller answer came eleven years later when, on 2 Feb. 2022, he – Justice Umar Ata Bandial - took oath as the 28th Supreme Court Chief Justice. He will retire in Sept. 2023. His priority in office will be to reduce the backlog of pending cases inherited from his predecessors. In 2001, there were 13,000, 20,000 in 2011, rising to 53,000 in 2022. (Interestingly, human rights cases number 136, and suo moto notices despite their inordinate publicity, only 24.)

Mathematically, if SC double benches were to be allocated one case per day, it would take my lords over twenty years to clear just the backlog.  Fresh cases admitted in 2022 by the present Supreme Court could expect to be heard only after 2042. 


One recent controversial case involved a SC judge appearing before his peers. According to the new CJP, SC Justice Qazi Faez Isa’s petition against the President’s Reference No. 1 of 2019 ‘was heard over 17 months by 10 judges’, spread over 60 hearings and forcing ‘the regular cause-list to be curtailed’. It finally ended on 26 April 2021 with a split verdict.

While no one would deny justice to a sitting judge, especially a Supreme Court one, should it have been at the expense of litigants less well placed than their dentist president? A Presidential Reference obviously took preference over the public’s patience and pain.   

Many citizens may not be aware that the SC judge seeking redress from his peers will (or should) in another 19 months be their next CJP. Justice Qazi Faez will succeed CJP Bandial in September 2023 and serve until Oct. 2024.  

He will be followed by Justice Ijaz-ul-Ahsan for 282 days, Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah from Aug. 2025 to Nov. 2027, Justice Munib Akhtar from Nov. 2027 to Dec. 2028, and Justice Yahya Afridi from Dec. 2028 until Jan. 2030. Six future CJPs in eight years – almost as long as the single tenure of the legendary CJ A. R. Cornelius. 

The improvements the new CJP Bandial intends to implement in judicial performance are better preparedness by indolent advocates, summaries rather than voluminous indigestible submissions, less wasteful recourse to adjournments, and the instant disposal of cases that are palpably frivolous. (Would Justice Isa’s case have qualified?)   

On judicial reforms, the new CJP may find himself like Melville’s Capt. Ahab, pitted against a leviathan, with only a pen for a harpoon. In the oceanography of Pakistan’s legal ecosystem, such leviathans feed on the plankton of little people, while shark-toothed lawyers gnash at the remains of their bloodied clients.    

Few would disagree with the new CJP’s remonstrance that judges are being ‘scandalised’ personally by the press rather than being ‘criticised’ for their judgements. His Lordship knows that the surest protection against such unfair demonization are efficient performance and transparent probity.

The new SC CJP has explained that split decisions by a bench are to be welcomed. They stem from ‘diversity’ in understanding and ‘individual perceptions’ of the same law. The public, however, would prefer its parliamentarians who draft the laws and the judiciary which interprets them to apply their minds more diligently. They might heed the advice of the philosopher Thomas Hobbes: ‘The law is more easily understood by few than many words. For all words are subject to ambiguity, and therefore multiplication of words in the body of the law is multiplication of ambiguity.’

Probity takes longer to harvest: it is not a cash crop. Someone once said that ‘where the roots of private virtue are diseased, the fruit of public probity cannot but be corrupt’. Especially so where the appropriation of land is involved.

The Islamabad High Court recently cancelled the allotment of preferential plots in Islamabad’s Sectors F14/F15 to eight serving and five retired supreme court judges. Their concept of ‘primus inter pares’ seems a far cry from Justice Cornelius’ monastic two-room suite in Lahore’s Falettis' hotel.

Is there any justification in the Ministry of Interior acquiescing to the request of the Supreme Court Registrar to provide ‘foolproof security’ after retirement to the outgoing Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed?  If the law is insufficient protection for a retired CJ SC, what hope does the common citizen have?

Pakistan, like Robert Bolt’s Tudor England, is a country ‘planted thick with laws’. Yet, they provide inadequate shade, insufficient protection, untimely justice. To which system of laws then should an aggrieved public turn? The law of the jungle?





[DAWN, 17 FEB.2022]


17 February 2022
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