District judiciary

Dr Zia Ullah Ranjah

Dr Zia Ullah Ranjah

How to reform the district judiciary?

The District judiciary is the backbone of the national judiciary. This branch of the judiciary deals with the legal disputes of the people at the grassroots level. However, there is a sense of neglect amongst a section of the District judiciary. This impression needs to be dispelled by our judicial policymakers. To strengthen our justice system, the concerns of the District judiciary have to be prioritized in judicial policy and effectively addressed. This article focuses on important issues including non-participation of the District judiciary in administrative decisions, flawed service structure, and lack of proper support for the District judiciary.

The District judiciary is hardly consulted in judicial policy and administrative decisions. National Judicial Policy Making Committee (NJPMC) – comprises of all chief justices charged with bringing judicial reforms in the country. In High Courts, Administrative Committees are responsible for administrative decision making for the District judiciary. The District judiciary is nowhere figured in administrative decision making. It creates a structural divide between different tiers of the judiciary affecting the fate of the District judiciary. For example, the transfers and postings of district-level judges are made without following a concrete policy. The District and Sessions judges are rarely elevated, especially since the lawyers’ movement for the restoration of Justice Iftikhar Choudhry.

The service structure of the District judiciary is seriously flawed. A great number of judges are recruited as civil judges. However, their chances of promotion to higher ranks remain minimal due to direct induction of lawyers. Arguably, there should be no bar on direct induction of lawyers at senior positions in the judiciary; however, these inductions need to be balanced with the legitimate right to the promotion of the District judiciary. Otherwise, the District judiciary would become a demoralized and weak institution.

The institutional support and appreciation for the District judiciary are lacking. The District judiciary deals with the highest number of cases in the first instance. They have to interact with numerous individuals and agencies while conducting trials. However, in case of non-cooperation from elements in the bar, the District judiciary is rarely supported. The lack of institutional support and appreciation lowers judicial passion and interest in work. There is also a perception that the salary and pension of the district judicial officers do not commensurate with their responsibility. The compensation structure should appreciate the post-retirement constraints of the judges.

The District judiciary also lacks IT support and on-job training. There is some progress in the training; however, our judicial academies are not as stable as other training institutions like the civil services academy. Foreign training and judicial exchange programs are rare. It may be enhanced to enrich the judicial experience. The judges do not have independent access to quality judicial software and law sites. Technology has revolutionized judicial systems worldwide. However, the District judiciary yet to benefit from technology. In this regard, ‘online courts’ need to be established in Pakistan.

The lack of support by the bar councils further undermines the working of district judges. Unnecessary strikes and adjournments are a common practice in our courts. How can judges perform without professional assistance and cooperation of bar members? The institutional coordination between these two chariots of the justice system is a must. The judicial policymakers and the bar councils should make a robust policy supporting the District judiciary to deliver justice effectively. For example, the District judiciary may be provided research support and given a day off to concentrate on writing judgments.

The performance of the District judiciary is affected due to the absence of specialized cadres and overwhelming focus on the quantity of disposal of cases. The cases are assigned notwithstanding the lack of interest of judges in particular areas of the law. The performance evaluation is conducted by the Administration Committee of a High Court. The quantity of decided cases appears to be the only tool used for performance evaluation. Therefore, judges focus on the number of disposal of cases while ignoring the quality of judgments. There is a need to define performance evaluation criteria like those for the executive civil servants. The speedy justice is appreciable; however, the speed of delivery needs to be balanced with the quality of justice.

The system of disciplinary proceedings is inherently defective. A separate service tribunal exists for the District judiciary. The tribunal comprises of justices of High Court who are, sometimes, junior to those sitting on the Administration Committee. Questions of impartiality could thus be raised, creating a negative impact on a fair hearing, as a fundamental right of judges of the District judiciary. Virtually the District judiciary has no effective right to hearing before the judiciary. 

Finally, the support staff i.e., stenographer and reader should be hired on merit and trained properly. The qualified staff increases the capacity of the courts in terms of case management, service of summons and record keeping. The induction of support staff, therefore, should be made through a provincial competitive exam making the appointment process more transparent. The optimal performance of judges cannot be expected with handicap staff.

Briefly, the District judiciary could be uplifted through training and institutional support, policy-oriented postings, transfers, and promotions, and quality evaluation of performance. The superior judiciary needs to formulate a policy to address these issues. Article 175 of the constitution envisages the concept of one judiciary. The independence of judiciary means and covers the independence of all branches of the judiciary. Without supporting the District judiciary, the delivery of justice to common people would remain a dream. Of course, the credit of strengthening our justice system goes to NJPMC.

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