Let’s begin with a quick recap of events at the Islamabad High Court last Monday. A large group of unruly lawyers raided the IHC premises, beat up the security staff, laid siege to the Chief Justice Block, vandalised it, prevented the media from reporting their glorious actions, spoke with the IHC Chief Justice, Justice Athar Minallah, menacingly and kept the CJ hostage for almost three hours. The situation was brought under control after additional police and Rangers personnel were deployed to the area.
The trigger for Monday’s events was the demolition on Sunday night of illegally-constructed ‘legal’ chambers by the Capital Development Authority in the area of the district courts in the city’s F-8 sector. Police also arrested some lawyers who put up resistance during the demolition operation.
The IHC has since issued a contempt of court notice to several lawyers while the representative bodies of the bar have issued a strike call. Some senior lawyers, though, have condemned the unruly and illegal actions of protesting lawyers.
Condemnable while this is, let us remember that this is not the first time lawyers have behaved like this. In 2017, some lawyers had raided and vandalised the chambers of then Lahore High Court Chief Justice Mansoor Ali Shah. No real action was taken against those responsible by then-chief justice of Pakistan. The effort was focused on ‘resolving’ the issue by placating the lawyers. In another incident, dozens of lawyers attacked a hospital in Lahore, beat up doctors and paramedical staff and damaged the facility.
It is now standard practice by some lawyers to act as goons while agitating any demand. They rough up the police, common citizens, media and anyone else who has the misfortune of attracting their ire. Some years ago, we saw footage of a father on a motorbike, carrying three children from school who got caught on The Mall in Lahore which was blocked by protesting lawyers. One of those lawyers slapped that man in front of his children. The man had done nothing except being at the wrong place at the wrong time. The helplessness and humiliation of a father before his children and the utter shamelessness of the lawyer who slapped him is an image that has remained etched in my memory.
Back in October 2010, I wrote an article for Express Tribune, titled, “Establishing the law by breaking the law?” The lawyers then demanded that a particular district and sessions judge must be transferred. Reason: he misbehaves with lawyers. This is what I wrote then: “Misbehaving with the lawyers, incidentally, now generally means the temerity by any lesser mortal to not sit, stay and stand up when a lawyer commands him to do so.”
A few things should be obvious: one, it is now an established modus operandi for lawyers to break the law; two, we have seen this trend rise since the lawyers’ movement of 2007; three, this is a tribal approach to promoting the community’s interests; in fact, there’s such narrowness in this that even the Bench — the other wheel of the system — regularly falls foul of the Bar.
The irony, as I have noted above, is that this is a spin-off of what began as an avowed movement for the restoration of the judiciary and its independence. It is quite another thing that that movement, by its deterministic approach, failed entirely to contextualise itself. The consequence: it lost the broader perspective on how to fit into the larger battle for democracy. It thought that its momentum is the necessary and sufficient condition for strengthening democracy. That was a mistake both at the conceptual and pragmatic levels. What we are witnessing now is the upshot of continuing confusion on that count.
Institutional approaches are about the rules of the game. The balance works when all the players internalise those rules. Equally, that balance doesn’t evolve in a vacuum. It must respond to the interplay of multiple actors. Democracy itself, given both the state of the political parties and the continuing civilian-military imbalance, is a process that is yet to evolve a normative standard. To think, as many did in 2007 and thereafter, that the judiciary can produce that balance through recourse to narrow application of law and constitutionalism is fairly naive.
So, yes. The lawyers have become abrasive. That’s stating the obvious. But that is just a symptom of the disease that afflicts all interest groups. The lawyers are operating in the same environment. The concept of solidarity or group cohesion takes primacy over the broader idea of rules of the game whose acceptance is the basic condition for balancing different interests through legal and non-violent ways.
We are steadily moving away from creating that standard of norms acceptable to and accepted by everyone. The courts and judges do not need police and paramilitary protection because in a civilised state they are considered sacrosanct. Put another way, no one — least of all members of the Bar — would even think of raiding and vandalising a court or hold a judge hostage. That standard of protection is like an iron-shield but also delicate. It’s delicate because once a sacrilege happens, the balance is disturbed.
This is why in an evolved society, interest groups, despite the imperative of pushing their agenda will shy away from crossing certain lines. Because, once a line is crossed, it sets a precedent, a bad one.
Umberto Eco puts it thus in his Tanner Lecture: “Latin rationalism adopts the principles of Greek rationalism but transforms and enriches them in a legal and contractual sense. The legal standard is modus, but the modus is also the limit, the boundaries.
“The Latin obsession with spatial limits goes right back to the legend of the foundation of Rome: Romulus draws a boundary line and kills his brother for failing to respect it. If boundaries are not recognised, then there can be no civitas.”
Dickens’ character Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist popularised the phrase the law is an ass. We now use it for bad laws or when the application of law is contrary to common sense. Going by that, what should one call lawyers who act like common lawbreakers?
The writer is a former News Editor of The Friday Times. He reluctantly tweets @ejazhaider