Letter from a Pakistani lawyer to litigants

Dear litigants,

First of all, my most sincere condolences: your position is certainly not enviable. If you’re an experienced hand, you must already have understood why I’m saying this, and might even be nodding your head vigorously right now, but, if you’re relatively new to navigating the labyrinthine hallways of our justice system, let me to explain why I feel so compelled to offer you my deepest condolences. In the years to come, your spirit will be shattered, your mind bewildered, your patience tested, your savings exhausted and, worst of all, your faith in fairness all but defeated. What is about to follow here will in no way ease your burdens and may just leave you in an even greater state of despair, but what it may offer is an idea of ​​what is really going on.

There are good reasons why lawyers sincerely pray that their loved ones never end up inside a katcheri.

Come regularly to our bars and you will automatically be in the loop with our hottest gossip (we are, contrary to the call of our profession, not particularly discreet). Most of it will be gossip, day-to-day politics and misogyny on steroids, punctuated of course with the most delicious invective, but, sprinkled here and there, you’ll also find rumors of a more sinister nature. You may hear about lawyers specializing in the “management” of magistrates, some of whom may have in their possession entire registers of judicial officers with a flexible conscience, or even their current rates. You may hear of certain irregularities or illegalities committed by certain judges in cahoots with certain parties. And, you will invariably hear about the esteemed members of our bars and associations – the staggering sums they have spent on their elections and the myriad ways in which they earn it tenfold.

This, however, is of course just rumor – idle chatter and chatter, or, to put it in neat legalese: hearsay. Now let me tell you that the things I can attest to are facts, based on almost six years of practice. In the district courts of Lahore, it takes about Rs 1,500 to stop the delivery of notices to an adverse party in any case. Courier receipts and newspaper advertisements may be forged or faked, while the court server may submit a false report that the summons was denied. By the time the other party learns that someone has filed a complaint, they will have already proceeded ex parte due to their absence and will most likely have reached the enforcement stage. Likewise, if you sneakily slip a 100-500 rupee note to a reader, they might be able to secure you a very desirable date (long or short, you take your pick).

This can be seen happening in plain sight, sometimes while the judges are seated inside the courtroom. And if that’s the kind of service you get for a pittance, imagine what you can get if you’re willing and able to pay more. The bar and the bench both play their part in creating and maintaining this hellish reality. We lawyers are a professional mafia like no other, who with astonishing regularity and absolute impunity beat or threaten judges and court staff, intimidate witnesses, help convicts flee court premises, defraud customers, bribe officials, and the list goes on. (all this when we are not busy attacking hospitals or calling the most baseless strikes). The presidents of our courts are also said to be guilty of embezzlement (although before the canons of contempt of court are directed against me or this document, I should clarify that not all judges are accused as such, the only black sheep among the flock, though why their white-wool colleagues seem to do so little to save their institutional reputations is beyond me).

Judicial lethargy abounds, misconduct complaints are common, and in superior courts the miserable term “face value” is now seen as synonymous with granting or withholding relief. You will be told that our laws and our codes of procedure are outdated and that there is a crying need for “systemic” and “structural” reform, but here we are somewhat lacking in sincerity. The Code of Civil Procedure may date from 1908 and the Code of Criminal Procedure dates from 1898, but there is not a single provision in either that allows judges to adjourn cases week after week and month after month without any substantial progress. Special laws even have strict deadlines. All family matters must be settled within a maximum period of six months. Libel lawsuits in 90 days. So why is your stuff dragging on and on?

The reasons are complex and manifold: fundamental lack of resources, no management of cases, bar-sponsored violence, entrenched culture of approving inexcusable adjournments and accepting frivolous petitions and requests, frequent and inexplicable transfers of justice at the whim of the chief justices of the high courts (and others who control them), and a complete absence of accountability, because just like our dear armed forces, the upper judiciary has come to be treated like a sacred cow – with no response to anyone but himself. Finally, and as no discussion is complete without its mention, there is of course the perennial problem of corruption – endemic to every government department, normalized to every stratum. We are a country that operates on kickbacks, commissions, and complex systems of nepotism and patronage that disguise themselves as harmless networks. Backs are scratched everywhere and bribes are no longer considered bribes – mainly because everyone has taken to calling them “kharcha pani”.

On a recent visit to an old ustad, I lamented that while our upper courts act more and more like durbars, our lower courts seem to be turning into literal bazaars. “Chotu, yeh bazaar nahi,” he corrected me, “mandi hai mandi.” Keep in mind, however, that all markets are driven by demand — in this case, dear litigants, it’s often yours. And with that, I think I should close my case. I wish you good luck and a miracle or two. — Sincerely, a lawyer.

Jon J. Epps