Transforming the justice system

Delays in settling court cases are a serious challenge in Pakistan. There were 1.5 million pending cases and 2.6 million new cases were brought before our courts in 2010. In 2021 it has increased to 2.2 million pending cases and 38.5 million new business.

Considering that there are only around 5000 judges in Pakistan; can this huge workload be resolved in a timely manner? What are the reasons for the delay? How can legal tech help reduce delays by making justice more efficient?

No one but an honorable Supreme Court Justice of Pakistan, Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, provides an answer. Judge Shah points out that “the traditional closed architecture of our courts” cannot solve the problem of delays. He adds that now is the time to bring the technology to run our “courthouse” – a generic term used for courts in Pakistan. “Delaying, delaying, delaying is the biggest challenge,” he says.

Citing the reasons for the delay, Judge Shah points to the poor case management system; failure to use technology to track the progress of cases; unregulated adjournments and strikes; lack of training for judges and lack of communication between the three levels of justice. To adjust the delays, he refers to an automation system that was used in Punjab. For example, an SMS service has been introduced to inform lawyers of the fixing of cases; a mobile application was launched to allow lawyers and litigants to follow the progress and status of their cases; a database was created to classify the cases.

However, he says, “nothing really changed because everything behind the automation system was manual.” The so-called automation system lacked intelligence. He did not indicate which cases were to be set for hearing and the court one case had to be set before. Moreover, there were no flags to indicate the age of the cases and the stage of the procedure. This is why cases of women, children, people with disabilities, prisoners, students or cases related to the economy and public order remain pending for years with serious implications for the rights of people and the national economy. The system completely lacks a sense of urgency and there is no smart way to know which judgments are contradictory, multiplying litigation. So, in the absence of a technology-based system to monitor the processing of cases, there should be no surprise if the performance of our judicial system is poor.

Justice Shah stresses that we need to move from “automation to transformation”. We need to “reshape and restructure” the justice sector. Once a bond or an injunction is granted, the procedure is considered complete. This must change. “The trial must end,” he stressed. The shelf life of a case should be reduced to a year or even less. In this context, Judge Shah suggests:

First, the concept of “access to justice” needs to be redefined. Access to justice should mean not only approaching the courts, but also concluding a case from trial courts to SC. It will help promote the rule of law and establish an effective system of accountability in society.

Second, a mandatory mediation and alternative dispute resolution mechanism must be built into our justice system. Alternative dispute resolution centers should be established in each district, which would reduce the workload of courts and delays in justice. National arbitration law should be revised to minimize court interference in arbitration proceedings. This would facilitate the transition from the adversarial court system to mediation and arbitration.

Third, an electronic filing portal should be created for the filing of documents – pleadings, requests for adjournment and evidence. For a deferment, a certificate must be uploaded directly by a hospital. The whole procedure should go through an electronic system, with a built-in system of fees for adjournments and frivolous proceedings. The service of summons and notices can be carried out via a GPS-compatible electronic portal.

Fourth, the “synchronized hearing” system of cases requires a paradigm shift. The physical presence of the parties and their lawyers can be suppressed. Lawyers can file written submissions or send summary arguments by audio or video link. This will allow judges to decide cases quickly. One should post bond to confirm an appearance on a fixed court date, if a personal hearing is necessary to do justice.

Fifth, data rooms should be established to track the progress of cases. Without live monitoring data rooms, superior courts are unable to assess what is happening with business in a district or province. There is no intelligent system to know day by day how many cases are settled or not and decided or not. Why are cases adjourned or not progressing to elimination? Thus, there is an urgent need to deploy an intelligent case management system in our courts.

Six, smart online research centers can be created to help lawyers and judges with legal analysis and research. This will help improve the quality of legal assistance and judgments and would be extremely beneficial for lawyers and judges working in remote districts and sub-districts. The legal fraternity should also use apps like Grammarly to improve writing skills.

Justice Mansoor Ali Shah, in his speech in Islamabad, reminded us that fundamental reforms are needed in Pakistan’s judicial system, particularly emphasizing the need to use legal technology to run a ‘courthouse’. If the past few years have taught us anything, it’s that we need to introduce technology to reduce delays for people’s well-being.

The Global Legal Tech Report 2021-2022 informs that applications such as document automation, legal operations, task management, collaboration, compliance, online legal service, client portal and knowledge management are increasingly used in the legal profession around the world. Thus, the legal fraternity should embrace legal technology to help transform our justice system. Without the appreciation and willingness of lawyers to move forward, no transformation can take place in the system. The bars must therefore support the judiciary to reform our justice system. Government and technology experts should provide financial and technical assistance to the justice system to reduce delays. This will help protect fundamental rights and change the lives of the Pakistani people.

The author is a lawyer at the Supreme Court.

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