Delay in justice is a serious challenge facing Pakistan. There were 1.5 million pending cases and 2.6 million new cases were filed in our courts in the year 2010. In 2021, it increased to 2.2 million pending cases and 38.5 million new cases were instituted. Given about 5,000 judges in Pakistan, can this enormous number of cases be decided in a timely manner? What are the reasons for the delay? How can legal tech help to reduce the delay by making the justice system efficient?
None other than an honourable judge of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, provides an answer. Justice Shah points out that the “traditional closed architecture of our courts” cannot address the issue of delay. He adds that the time has come to bring technology to run our ‘court house’—a generic term used for courts in Pakistan. “Delay, delay, delay is the biggest challenge,” he emphasised.
Citing the reasons for the delay, Justice Shah underlines the poor case management system; non-use of technology to monitor the progress of cases; unregulated adjournments and strikes; lack of training of judges and communication between three tiers of the judiciary. To regulate delay, he refers to an automation system that was employed in Punjab. For example, an SMS service was introduced to inform lawyers as to the fixation of cases; a mobile app was launched to enable lawyers and litigants to monitor the progress and status of their cases; and a database was created to categorise cases.
However, giving voice to his disappointment, he said, “nothing really changed because everything behind the automation system was manual.” The so-called automation system lacked intelligence. It failed to inform which cases were to be fixed for hearing. There were no flags to indicate the age of cases and the stage of proceedings. That is why the cases of women, children, disabled persons, prisoners, students or cases relating to economy and law and order remain pending for years with serious implications for people’s rights and the national economy. The system completely lacks a sense of urgency. There is no intelligent way to find out which judgments are conflicting. It multiplies the litigation. Thus, lacking a technology-based system to monitor the processing of cases, there should be no surprise if the performance of our justice system is poor.
Justice Shah stressed now we need to move from “automation to transformation.” We need “refiguring and restructuring” of the justice sector. Once a bail or injunction is granted, the proceedings are considered to be over. This must change. “The trial has to complete,” he emphasised. The shelf life of a case should be reduced to one year or even less.
In this context, Justice Shah makes the following proposals.
First, the concept of ‘access to justice’ needs to be redefined. Access to justice should mean not only approaching the courts but the conclusion of a case from the trial courts to the SC. It will help to promote the rule of law and set in an effective system of accountability in society.
Second, a mandatory mechanism of mediation and alternative dispute resolution must be embedded in our justice system. ADR centres should be established in each district. It will reduce the workload on courts and delay in justice. Domestic arbitration law should be revised to minimize courts’ interference in the arbitration proceedings. It would facilitate the transition from the adversary legal system to mediation and arbitration.
Third, an e-filing portal should be created for the filing of documents i.e., pleadings, applications for adjournments, and evidence. For an adjournment, a certificate must be uploaded directly by a hospital. The entire proceedings should move through an electronic system. There should be an inbuilt system of costs for frivolous adjournments and proceedings. The service of summons and notices can be affected through a GPS-enabled e-portal.
Fourth, the system of ‘synchronised hearing’ of cases requires a paradigm shift. The physical presence of parties and their lawyers may be dispensed with. Lawyers can file written submissions or send skeleton arguments through audio or video link. It will allow judges to decide cases quickly. One should deposit security to confirm an appearance on a fixed date of hearing if a personal hearing is necessary for doing complete justice.
Five, data rooms should be established to monitor the progress of cases. Without live monitoring data rooms, superior courts are unable to gauge what is happening with cases in a district or a province. There is no intelligent system to find out on a day-to-day basis how many cases are fixed or not fixed and decided or not decided. Why cases are adjourned or why they are not moving towards disposal. Thus, there is an urgent need to deploy a smart case management system in our courts.
Six, smart online research centres can be established to facilitate lawyers and judges in legal analysis and research. It will help to improve the quality of legal assistance and judgments. This would be hugely beneficial for lawyers and judges working in remote districts and subdistricts. The legal fraternity should also use apps like Grammarly to improve their writing skills.
Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, in a speech at Islamabad, reminded us that fundamental reforms are needed in the justice system of Pakistan, especially underscoring the need for using legal tech to run a ‘court house’. If the past few years have taught us anything, it is that we must introduce tech to curtail delays for the welfare of the people.
The Global Legal Tech Report 2021-2022 informs us that applications like document automation, legal operations, task management, collaboration, compliance, online legal service, client portal, and knowledge management are increasingly used in the legal profession across the globe. Data security, big data, Bitcoin, computable contracts, legal help web, digital technology, outcome prediction, machine learning, legal analytics, mobile computing, data mining, electronic document-management systems, virtual law firms, online dispute resolution, electronic courts and e-filing of court documents, cloud computing and robot lawyers are transforming the way legal work has traditionally been done.
Thus, the legal fraternity in Pakistan should embrace legal tech to help transform our justice system. Without lawyers’ appreciation and willingness to move forward, no transformation can take place in the system. The bar councils, thus, must support the judiciary to reform our justice system. Government and tech experts should provide financial and technical assistance to the judiciary to reduce delays. It will help to protect fundamental rights changing the life of the people of Pakistan.
Briefly, our justice system should be accessible, convenient, inclusive, sensitive, intelligent, data driven, transparent and non-discriminatory. It is high time that political parties, policymakers, lawyers and judges re-imagine and reform our justice system. Only by significant structural and institutional reforms we can reduce delays in justice and, in doing so, eventually strengthen our economy.