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When lawyers turn into hooligans

Updated 01 Nov, 2017 06:32pm
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui
Illustration by Reema Siddiqui

IIf the justice system of Pakistan had a weatherman, he would have told you many years ago that a storm was brewing. That storm – reflected in the tussle between powerful members of the bar and the bench in Punjab – has arrived. Lawyers’ hooliganism, particularly in Punjab, is not a new phenomenon. But it has been getting worse. And it had to.

Sher Zaman Qureshi, a Multan-based lawyer who recently shot to fame as well as notoriety, is sending a message loud and clear: there are no limits to what you can do to take on the bench of the highest court in the province if you have enough noise, violence and politics on your side. This is deeply tragic and revolting. The fact that the Supreme Court of Pakistan has, at least until now, chosen not to hold disruptive members of the bar accountable, adds to a feeling of resentment.

Now, reasonable people can debate whether the chief justice of the Lahore High Court (LHC) was reasonable in stopping the LHC’s Multan bench from functioning, or whether or not it was proportionate to the unruly actions of the lawyers led by Qureshi. However, such disagreement cannot justify the suggestion that the hooliganism committed in the courtrooms of the highest court in Punjab is somehow justified. And we must not stand for the logically bankrupt argument that ‘both sides are in the wrong’: when we disagree with judicial decisions (even the administrative ones) we cannot equate a wrongful decision with criminal action.

The lawyers who have been insulting courtrooms and judges in Punjab commit criminal actions. They need to be identified and punished for hooliganism and contempt of court. We cannot equate these criminal acts with the actions of judges making decisions we disagree with. If we think that hooliganism, intimidation and contempt of court are understandable reactions to decisions we disagree with, then the moral compass is lost. I call this the Taliban logic; all grave crimes are explained away by suggesting that the perpetrators of the crimes have some grievances too. In societies plagued by the absence of the rule of law and by vigilante violence, the first casualty is the loss of a sense of proportion. The slightest annoyance becomes the basis for justifying criminal actions.

Lawyers are a part of this society, and, better than most, they understand the ins and outs of the uses and abuses of privilege. If you are surprised by how progressively worse this hooliganism by lawyers has become, I urge you to think of this as not simply a lawyers-versus-judges problem. Think of it as Pakistan having a rule-of-law problem. The system is broken in many respects and lawyers’ behaviour will continue to get worse until courts and regulators choose to (or are allowed to) hold the delinquents accountable. Yes, the judicial branch needs its share of reforms too. However, a legal system, if it wants to survive, must treat the sanctity of the courtroom and respect for judges as an inviolable assumption. This has to be non-negotiable.

Hooliganism by lawyers started at the level of the lower courts many years ago. And such lawyers have continued to test the waters to see how far they can go. Their latest foray now tells them that they can destroy high court property, insult judges and still not be held accountable. It tells them that things will be ‘handled’, that calls for reconciliation will hide the ugly truths plaguing us, that the apex court will expect a provincial high court not to proceed with punishment for contempt of court.

But this will only last for so long, for you can brush the truth under the carpet but you can’t brush a storm. This storm will eventually destroy everything in its wake if it is not checked now. It is just a matter of time and the winds changing direction. If there were a weatherman for the justice system, he would tell all the courts in Pakistan: there is a category 5 hurricane headed your way.

This was originally published in the Herald's October 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.

The writer is a barrister and advocate of the Lahore High Court. He holds degrees from the University of London and Harvard Law School.