Mar 3, 2009

Mobile courts

WITH the creation of mobile courts through a presidential ordinance, President Zardari has within a week committed two acts that eschew good governance for what appear to be short-term political ends. Last week, the president rocked the political landscape by imposing governor’s rule in Punjab. Ostensibly done to prevent a ‘constitutional vacuum’, that fig leaf has since fallen away with the PPP’s declaration that it will install its own government in Punjab. Now the president has decreed that mobile courts will dispense summary justice, ostensibly because he is 'satisfied that circumstances exist which render it necessary to take immediate action'.
What those circumstances are will be hotly debated. The president’s team will argue there is an urgent need to repair a broken system of justice. That may well be true, but the president’s detractors will ascribe a more sinister motive to him suddenly waking up to the cries of justice. The last time the land that constitutes present-day Pakistan had mobile courts was in 1919 when the British imposed martial law to quell riots in Lahore. In recent years, several ideas have been mooted to improve the delivery of justice to ordinary Pakistanis. The two most well-known suggestions are evening courts and small-claims courts. Nowhere in the debate has there been talk of mobile courts, which could in fact further undermine the law and order situation if defendants and court officers end up clashing over punishment handed down. The mobile-courts ordinance stipulates that the 'district police officer shall provide police force and security' to the courts, but if they are in fact meant to operate in remote areas of Pakistan it is difficult to see how such security can be adequately ensured.
However, while in and of itself a mobile court raises many questions, the real focus will be on the stealthy manner and timing of the legislation. Presidential ordinances must be used sparingly and certainly not for tweaking the judicial system of the country. That ought to be the remit of the assemblies, where, ideally, elected representatives should debate such changes comprehensively and then present a bill that passes muster with a majority of members. Anything else reeks of ad hocism and authoritarianism. As regards the timing, opponents of mobile courts will undoubtedly cry foul, and with good reason. The biggest visible threat to the federal government in the near future is the long march for the restoration of deposed chief justice Iftikhar Chaudhry. Mobile courts could be used to break up the marchers well before they converge on Islamabad. It remains to be seen if that happens. At the very least though President Zardari should reconsider his lapse into political expediency; it is a slippery slop that history suggests eventually engulfs he who would be master of all that he surveys.

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