The accountability of the judiciary has largely been absent in Pakistan. Without accountability, judiciary’s independence acts as a shield behind which judges have the opportunity to conceal possible unethical behavior.
Indeed, judicial accountability is part and parcel of judicial independence, since a judge whose conduct and decisions are influenced by extra-legal elements cannot be independent.
Under international standards, including UN basic principles on the independence of the judiciary, the independence and accountability of the judiciary are inextricably linked.
Corruption in the judiciary is a long-standing and chronic issue in Pakistan. Transparency International’s corruption perception surveys, for example, frequently place the judiciary as one of the most corrupt institutions in the country (along with the police).
In the past, where judges have acknowledged corruption in the judicial institution, the focus has been limited only to judges in the subordinate judiciary.
The National Judicial Policy adopted by the SC in 2009, for example, recommended that strict action be taken against district and sessions judges who carry a “persistent reputation of being corrupt”. However, while judges of the superior courts were encouraged to decide cases expeditiously, there was no recognition of corruption or other misuse of authority by judges of the supreme and high courts in the policy.
The Supreme Judicial Council (SJC), under Article 209 of the Constitution, is tasked with carrying out inquiries into the capacity and conduct of SC and high court judges.
The SJC comprises the chief justice of Pakistan, the two most senior judges of the SC, and the two most senior chief justices of the high courts. Disciplinary proceedings are initiated before the Council if there is information from ‘any source’, or it is the opinion of the president of Pakistan, that a judge from the superior judiciary is either incapable of performing his or her duties due to mental or physical incapacity, or that he or she may have engaged in misconduct. A finding of guilt by the SJC is the only method by which a judge of the SC or of a high court can be removed.
The chief justice has acknowledged that the SJC has been rendered ineffective because of prolonged delays in deciding complaints: according to the chief justice, 90pc of cases before the SJC have become moot, as the accused judges retired while their cases were still pending.
In addition, especially in the recent past, military governments and judges of the SC have also undermined the authority and the constitutional role of the SJC.
Ironically, under the leadership of chief justice Chaudhry, the process of circumventing the SJC continued. Following restoration in 2009, the SC gave at least 72 judges who were accused of taking oath under Musharraf’s provisional constitution the option of resigning or facing contempt of court charges. Their plea to appear before the SJC for hearing was dismissed by the SC.
In this context, therefore, Chief Justice Jamali’s focus on rejuvenating the SJC to perform its constitutional role is a welcome move.
The process of judicial accountability, however, will require much more:
First, measures must be taken to ensure that disciplinary proceedings are not used as a means of intimidation, harassment, or retaliation against judges for exercising their judicial functions independently and diligently. At the minimum, this would mean that disciplinary proceedings against judges are strictly according to the provisions of the Constitution and international standards, and must meet all fair trial and due process guarantees.
Second, transparency should be a key aspect of disciplinary proceedings against judges. The number of cases referred to the SJC; the legal and evidentiary bases for the complaints; the time taken for adjudication; and the outcomes of the proceedings must be made public — both to maintain the public’s confidence in the administration of justice and also to protect the interests of the parties involved.
Third, what amounts to judicial misconduct must be clearly defined and must be appropriate under the rule of law. While the current understanding of misconduct seems limited to financial corruption, nepotism and misuse of authority, perhaps what is also needed is the recognition of the role of judges in undermining human rights protections or facilitating violations or impunity for such violations. One of the ways this can be done is to revise the judicial code of conduct to bring it in line with international standards, including reflecting the duty of judges to guarantee and protect human rights.
And finally, judicial immunity under Article 77 of the Penal Code and other provisions of the law which protect judges from liability resulting from their ‘good faith’ judicial actions, should never insulate judges from prosecution for serious crimes and crimes under international law.
If carried out fairly, expeditiously and transparently, the judicial accountability drive initiated by the chief justice can be a step towards restoring public confidence and trust in the judiciary, which has long suffered because of neglect of the problems plaguing the institution. It will also bring Pakistan closer to an independent judiciary, in a truer sense of the term.
The writer is a legal adviser for the International Commission of Jurists.