Access to justice is a basic right and a vital responsibility mandated upon the State
The edifice of modern and civilised societies is built on the foundation of justice. Although delivery in accordance with law is the obligation of all branches of the government, here the term is discussed in relation to the judicial organ of the state. Justice is thus considered to be the cardinal principle and the soul of the judiciary.
Occupying a centre stage in ethics, legal and political philosophy harmonises the balance of society and acts as an effective tool in resolving conflicts of all natures. ‘Access to justice’ as a term is used to reflect the fact that in a rights-based society, everyone must not only understand their rights but also the ways to enforce them, in case of their infringement. The term ‘access to justice’ is not confined to any reform program. It has a broader horizon and includes all justice sectors and stakeholders such as the police, the prosecutors, the court staff, the investigators, the witnesses and the bars. The litigant is the focal person and access to justice deals with empowering the litigants to ensure that their rights are upheld. Access to justice means approach or admittance to justice. It means existence of an effective system where rights are provided and remedied in case of breach.
According to Black’s Law Dictionary, access to justice deals with the potential of a society to effectively use courts and other legal institutions to protect its rights and to prosecute the claims. The preamble to the Constitution of Pakistan proclaims that principles of democracy, freedom, equality, tolerance, and social justice shall be fully observed, thereby guaranteeing fundamental rights.
Access to justice is a basic right and a vital responsibility mandated upon the State. Without an efficient and effective justice system, the enjoyment of this right is hard to achieve. Its effective enforcement acts as a litmus test for the efficiency of not only the judicial system but also of governance in general. In this context, the fourth Chief Justice of the US, John Marshall, stated that the very essence of civil liberty “consists in the right of every individual to claim protection of laws, whenever he receives injury. One of the first duties of government is to afford that protection.”
Corollary of this is the right to life guaranteed by Article 9 and the right to fair trial under Article 10 of the Constitution of Pakistan, which further strengthens the due process. Added to this is the right to consult a counsel in case of arrest, and to be informed of one’s charges. Pakistan has an elaborate justice and administrative system that is accessed by thousands of people daily. But majority of surveys highlight the decades-long problem of inordinate delays in the dispensation of justice. Even writ petitions take years. Therefore, it is not out of place to mention the age old saying, “justice delayed is justice denied.” Every citizen expects expeditious justice but is frustrated when faced with delays. Statistics given by the Supreme Court showed around 52,796 cases pending by June 2022.
Connected to this is the problem of consulting a proper lawyer of caliber, who usually takes a hefty fee. Since many belong to low-income households, citizens cannot avail their service, thus depriving them of justice. Poor investigations, rampant corruption in the patwar system, and slow response of government officials adds insult to injury. As a result, the trust deficit in the system is rapidly eroding. When confidence and cooperation are lacking, people resort to seeking redressal for their grievances through illegal or illegitimate means.
All these impediments in the dispensation of justice also provide opportunities to extremist organisations to unleash scathing criticism against the Anglo-Saxon justice system, while assuring that their own model is a panacea for the resolutions of conflicts, within time and at low cost. It is therefore high time that the government bring revolutionary reforms to ensure access to justice.