Around the same time last year, I learnt in my political science class about the term ‘legitimacy’. We were taught that a teacher has legitimacy in the classroom as they can punish students for non-obedience. This, at least to my understanding, meant that legitimacy plays an important role in shaping people’s rational and law-related behaviour.
In reading Tom R. Tyler’s ‘Why People Obey the Law’, a more insightful understanding was revealed. People obey the law if they believe it is legitimate, not because they fear punishment. Prof. Tyler suggests that lawmakers and law enforcers would do much better to make legal systems worthy of respect than to try to instill fear of punishment.
Since Prof. Tyler’s seminal work was published almost three decades ago, there have been hundreds of studies around the world which support his basic argument — compliance with the law depends on its (perceived) legitimacy. Most of these studies based on his argument, measure and conceptualise the legitimacy of the criminal justice system (CJS), or the lack thereof.
How can our courts improve their legitimacy in the eyes of the people if pre-arrest bail is granted to someone influential who is known to have previously absconded from the law?
As a natural corollary, the CJS and its legitimacy, depends on trust and confidence it inspires in people, whose conduct it aims to regulate. A loss of trust in the CJS would mean: people are less willing to cooperate with law enforcement agencies; suspect court decisions; and believe that non-compliance is an acceptable means to achieve social control and social change.
It’s no surprise then, if disgruntled indigenous workers in our country could resort to utilising religious sentiments to publicly lynch an expat manager, while expecting to get away with it. Or that powerful feudals could summon a citizen to their estate, to beat him to death.
The Nazim Jokhio murder case is a classic example of how our country’s CJS is doing little to improve its credibility, thereby diminishing its own legitimate authority. As Abdul Moiz Jaferii in his recent article, tantalizingly pens this delicate irony: “Nazim should have known better. He spoke up for an endangered bird that even the Supreme Court couldn’t really help.”
Contrastingly, our justice institutions have all pitched in equally to help the accused walk free.
Since Nazim’s brutal murder, the entire state machinery has been utilised to protect these high profile accused, who happen to be lawmakers of the ruling party. The law officers, who should be responsible for prosecuting them, are garlanding them with traditional Sindhi ajraks. The police have, at regular intervals, blatantly flouted the orders of the original trial court. One of the accused, the senior lawmaker and a known absconder, has been granted bail because there is no court of law.
The injustices done in the Nazim case are just the tip of the iceberg, which not only alienate the poor population from the CJS but are detrimental to the degree of moral alignment that people feel with the police, the courts and the law.
These are just some of the many mind-boggling details on the Nazim Jokhio saga.
How can our courts improve their legitimacy in the eyes of the people if pre-arrest bail is granted to someone influential who is known to have previously absconded from the law? How can the police improve its legitimacy if it fails to submit a challan months after a court of law has ordered it to do so? How can prosecutors improve their legitimacy if they are the ones, who by virtue of procedural delays, are trying to weaken the case in the first place?
The primary reason why the general public views law enforcement agencies, courts and other CJS institutions as legitimate is that they focus on the manner of fairness in which authorities exercise their powers i.e procedural justice. Legitimacy is significantly influenced by procedural justice. Citizens would more likely have trust in the CJS if it is grounded on the institutions’ conformity to standards of legality (i.e acting according to the law) and moral validity (i.e reflected in a sense of shared moral purpose with citizens). Procedural justice is central to the exercise of authority, and people who believe that they have received procedural justice are more likely to be willing to accept the decisions of legal authorities and to abide by those decisions over time. Whether Nazim’s widow and relatives were at the receiving end of unbiased and neutral procedures, could well be translated to gauge the performance and measure the legitimacy of legal actors within our CJS.
In more advanced justice systems, a focus on legitimacy when dealing with the procedural policies and practices of CJS institutions is playing a pivotal role in lowering crime rates. The right-minded members of a society are termed as “seekers of justice” and it’s their perceptions which largely contribute to compliance with the law. An effective functioning of the CJS requires that the basic tenets of fairness, procedural justice, legality, shared moral values and promotion of subordinate interests are widely accepted within its population.
The injustices done in the Nazim case are just the tip of the iceberg, which not only alienate the poor population from the CJS but are detrimental to the degree of moral alignment that people feel with the police, the courts and the law. The Nazim case also exhibits why and how legitimacy has its limits. When authorities are perceived to engage in illegal behaviour, it becomes imperative for people to learn to question the system. A value-based perspective on institutional legitimacy asserts the importance of developing and sustaining a CJS in which people more willingly abide by the law, because they feel that legal authorities are legitimate and thus ought to be obeyed. For now, our system’s priorities are the oil-rich Arab huntsmen and the feudal Jams, as opposed to preservation of the ecosystem or protecting those who stand up for that cause.