Mar 3, 2009

Justice on wheels

Almost everyone has caught an unpleasant, fishy odour hanging thick in the air as the president promulgated the Code of Criminal Procedure (Amendment) Ordinance 2009. This allows for magistrates to be appointed and 'mobile' courts set up to visit remote areas in various districts, and mete out 'instant' justice. Ostensibly, the idea is to meet people's demand for speedy justice. In practice it seems like a particularly simplistic ruse to split lawyers just ahead of their planned long march. The ordinance creates new jobs for lawyers and as such could lure some away at a critical time. There seems little doubt then that the purpose behind it is mala fide. Further controversy is almost certain to centre around the suspicion that the ordinance was illegally promulgated by an increasingly desperate presidency at a time when the National Assembly was in session. If it was indeed promulgated on February 27, as the presidential spokesman has claimed, it is unclear why it was not made public immediately.Let us for a moment though look beyond the political motives behind the move. It is true that access to justice is a need of people; the majority is deprived of it due to the deeply flawed system in place now. We have all heard accounts of cases that have not reached a conclusion even after a decade or more; of petitioners making trips after trips to courts. The tens of thousands of under-trial prisoners in our jails are another consequence of this inefficiency and tardiness. The demands raised in Swat, taking the shape of a call for Sharia, are also rooted in the desire of people there to have courts that are truly capable of delivering justice fairly, and without undue delay or discrimination. But 'speedy' or 'instant' justice is not the solution. The due process of justice demands that all sides be heard and a verdict reached after careful consideration – not in a spirit of haste in the immediate, often emotional aftermath of a crime. The set of rules and procedures worked out through the centuries are intended to guard against the miscarriage of justice. The rules may not be perfect; but they are the best we have. Speeding up this process is highly dangerous. While we need a system of justice able to meet people's needs and expectations, we do not need expedient shortcuts that simply make a mockery of the whole process. The failures of our judicial system are a key factor behind the lawlessness and anarchy we face today. We need to re-vamp this system – but by setting higher standards for it rather than by lowering them in a misguided quest for speed. For these reasons, the new ordinance amending the Criminal Procedure Court of 1898 is highly undesirable. The dubious intentions behind it suggest our leaders are willing to use justice to try and further political causes and, by doing so, add to the discord that is already threatening to tear our nation apart.

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