Access To Justice Denied: How A Common Citizen Experiences Our Failure To Reform The System

Barrister Haaris Ramzan offers a ground-level view of a citizen’s ordeal once they are targeted by a crime or injustice.

With the advent of Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI) in 2018, there were high hopes in some quarters that the rule of law will be established and the common people shall not be deprived of basic rights. I thought so too – and so I vociferously campaigned and voted for PTI. The basic element was the trust in Imran Khan as an honest and dedicated person who would deliver by providing justice to common people.

Now, more than three and a half years down the lane, where are we standing? Have the common people got the relief that they voted for? The question-mark lingers on! Let us start off with a brief narration of the legal system itself. In my earlier articles, I had explained the issues which lead to access to justice is denied. To quickly recap some of those, they include poorly regulating Bar Councils for lawyers, cumbersome process for a common person to seek access to a court of law for the redressal of basic issues, excessive costs, lack of professionalism within the system and the unwillingness of the judicial system to reform or expedite the process.

Bifurcating the legal system into two broader elements, a common person encounters either an issue relating to either criminal or civil law. With regards to the criminal side of the law, the first encounter that a person has after having already suffered the ordeal of a crime is having to deal with the law enforcement agencies.

At the outset, it is important to note the basic working affairs of these law enforcement agencies. Starting from the police, we all have a police station in our vicinity which seems a no-go area. Once you reach the place, you would be likely to encounter a most discourteous individual who, rather than helping you, would deal in a suspicious manner with an aim of discouraging you. The surroundings would give a feel of entering the year 1935 where the working atmosphere is deprived of the most basic of facilities. Though these police stations are now equipped with a modern front desk, unfortunately, that, too, is badly maintained and gives extremely negative vibes.

In the modernised version, the concerned personnel at the front desk would entertain your complaint with a crisp computer-printed receipt with the name and contact number of an Assistant Sub Inspector (‘ASI’) who is the Investigating Officer (‘IO’) assigned to resolve the complaint.

It takes almost seven to nine months for a civil court to complete the process of summons which relates to calling in the parties. After that, the civil trial begins, which on average doesn’t take less than four to five years to complete – and some may take generations Your ordeal now begins. At this juncture, if you wish to see the Station House Officer (‘SHO’) or the Inspector heading the concerned police station to discuss the matter, you will receive a simple answer that this office is not available or that they are out patrolling – until and unless you have a reference of a senior police officer.

Nevertheless, after a few days, one may receive a call from a very averse ASI mentioned above, who, dealing with you in a very autocratic manner, would demand that you appear before him for the redressal of your concern. The most interesting aspect will be that he shall have no regard or sensitivity for your work-related commitments and would be extremely reluctant in rescheduling the meeting in case you are unavailable. The reason is understandable.

This particular ASI has to operate in a work environment that is hostile, with a lack of support from superiors. There is scarce logistical or related support: he has to arrange expenses for commuting and investigation on his own, and that, too, while handling numerous other cases. This person does not have the luxury of appropriate work hours and having a team of assistants with the requisite knowledge and skills. In addition, normally these investigators hail from very basic backgrounds where they often face deprivation in their upbringing and then join the police force with a scarred mind. The aim is to lead a better lifestyle as opposed to helping the common people.

The complainant is left with no other option but to grease the palms of the IO, who would take his time in submitting the challan before the court. By now, a reasonable amount of time would be consumed and the accused in the criminal matter becomes eligible for bail. The trail begins at a snail’s pace with abundant adjournments (thanks to a substantial contribution from the lawyers) and an extreme lack of control by the judge himself. To add to the misery, the judges get regularly transferred. And by the time that a new judge develops a grip of the matter, they too are transferred.

By this time, the litigant/complainant would have wasted colossal amounts of time and money for nothing. Such delays lead the complainant to lose interest in the matter and by now all they would want would be to get rid of the matter and escape to a peaceful place. The witnesses and the evidence in the case would not be interested anymore due to excessive delays and a reasonable criminal trial would lead to logical conclusions in favour of the accused – hence the chaos in the society. The irony is similarly paced for a wrongfully accused person, who would have to run from pillar to post to seek justice while facing delays and lack of interest.

Let us consider also the civil side of litigation, which is generally called ‘Dewani Muqadama’ in Urdu. It takes almost seven to nine months for a civil court to complete the process of summons which relates to calling in the parties. After that, the civil trial begins, which on average doesn’t take less than four to five years to complete – and some may take generations.

The problem, at the end of the day, lies with the will – or lack thereof – of the government to actually declare a state of emergency in the area of access to justice with all the resources directed to help a common person so that they get their rightful share and a chance for peaceful coexistence.

I shall be discussing my take on reforms in the next article, in continuation to this one.

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