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Situationer: Manpower woes deny justice to Balochistan litigants

QUETTA: On Aug 8, 2016 a suicide bomb ripped through the emergency services ward of Quetta’s Civil Hospital and deprived Balochistan of 55 of its finest, and some of the most senior, lawyers. As the province’s justice system continues to reel from the blow with already understaffed courts, citizens are left waiting for several years on end to get justice.

“The time from plea to judgement ranges from a few months to 10 to 15 years. For instance, hundreds of cases filed in the early 2000s are still waiting for their day in court,” Quetta-based Advocate Kafaitullah Qazi says.

Despite incremental increase in the provincial budget for law and order and the prosecution department, understaffing remains a major issue for the district and high courts, and the benches. According to official budget data for the financial year 2016-17, spending on the prosecution department was increased to 27.28 per cent, while the budget for law and order was raised to 12.59pc.

According to statistics obtained from the Balochistan High Court (BHC) registrar, the province has 3,005 public prosecutors — 28 prosecutors per million people, whereas the standard for developed countries is 300 lawyers per million people.

“One of the reasons [for high case pendency] is that there are simply not enough judges. There are hardly enough qualified candidates to fill the existing vacancies, let alone to expand and reduce pressure on a chronically overstretched system,” Additional Advocate General Mir Shay Haq Baloch explains.

He says there are 11 judges in the BHC but none of them are assigned to the Turbat and Sibi benches. Instead, every month two judges are sent to handle cases in the two towns.

However, Mr Baloch argues, “Even with enough judges, there wouldn’t be enough public prosecutors. A key reason for both shortages is the very manner in which judges, prosecutors and attorneys are appointed. In Balochistan, the qualification for judges, prosecutors and attorneys is very high while the capacity is quite low.”

According to data obtained from the office of the BHC registrar, for every 10 posts in Balochistan’s courts, four are vacant.

Public pressure and FIRs

Mr Qazi says, “In a justice system with a huge bottleneck created by staff shortages, one of the biggest administrative errors is to allow the police to flood the system with cases best resolved out of court.”

He adds: “The police register cases that do not necessarily need to undergo lengthy legal processes. They do this just to show they have something to do, without thinking that they are overcomplicating things for the judicial system.”

To this, a police official explains, “It is not the police that register unnecessary FIRs… people pressurise us to register their cases. It is their legal right to have their cases registered whether big or small.”

Besides, Balochistan is one of the most dangerous places in the country for both justice providers and justice seekers.

According to a Human Rights Watch report, there were fewer incidents of militant violence in 2016 compared to previous years; yet according to the South Asian Terrorism Portal, among the worst-hit of violence were the lawyers of Balochistan.

On June 8, 2016 Barrister Amanullah Achakzai, a young principal of the University of Balochistan’s Law College, was shot dead by unidentified assailants. Merely two months later, Bilal Anwar Kasi, the president of Balochistan Bar Association, was shot by an extremist group.

The horrific attack at Quetta’s Civil Hospital came after hundreds of lawyers gathered at the hospital and protested against the assault on Mr Kasi.

Advocate Changis Baloch, a member of the Quetta Bar Association who survived the Aug 8 attack, says, “The Balochistan High Court was closed for two months after that, and then for three months, lawyers protested every two days a week to ensure that the government provided security and brought the perpetrators to the book.”

He explains that an atmosphere of fear and trend of continuous closure of courts was also one of the reasons behind the increasing number of pending cases. “With recent elections for the Balochistan Bar Associations on April 28, senior lawyers are making an effort to encourage new lawyers to continue practising despite the insecurity,” he says.

Safe City Project

Despite an increase in funding over the years, prosecution and law and order departments have failed to deliver the needed push to put the justice system back on track and reverse the climate of fear.

Mr Qazi says, “In 2016, before the attacks, the law and order department designed a security plan ‘Safe City Project’ for Quetta. Under the project, the government had planned to adopt an array of potential counterterrorism procedures. Some of the funds out of a total Rs10 billion were disbursed but the project was not implemented so the violence continues.”

The additional advocate general highlights the urgency for steps to improve the efficacy of the justice system. “Besides a hiring spree, practical suggestions have been made to bring back law and order to the region. In response to the challenges the justice system is facing, the government has to hire more public prosecutors and judges so that pending cases can get the opportunity to undergo trial. On the other hand, the requirements for justice providers need to be lowered in order to get an adequate number of lawyers to practice,” he says.

Published in Dawn, July 6th, 2017

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