Trailing their (black) coats

Being a lawyer, you are never quite at ease with yourself. You assume burdens or are saddled with them. We are not a particularly well liked bunch — even though we are a necessary evil. Then there are days when even lawyers do not like lawyers or approve of what folks in the business of arguing get up to.

In a recent development, as reported, leaders of many bar associations at a recent lawyers’ convention have vowed to show “street power” till the ouster of PM Gilani. A former Supreme Court Bar President reportedly also declared a “war” against President Zardari. The apparent aim of such actions is to “support” the Supreme Court since the PM is, allegedly, defying orders. Last time I checked, the Supreme Court had not ordered the PM to step down. And these lawyers do not seem to be arguing morality. Even if they were, why parade that as a legal view?

If media folks were engaging in jingoism to improve ratings, I would find that understandable. But using professional legal platforms to voice partisan political views is hardly ideal. We are not in the Musharraf era where a dictator is acting with no legal backing for his actions regarding a Chief Justice. The legal process regarding the contempt case involving the PM is not even complete yet. And now we have leaders of legal fraternity promising protests till the President and the PM leave. This, to put it mildly, is senseless.

Just to make things more exciting, leader of one bar association also threw in the Memogate matter and labelled Ms. Asma Jahangir a “traitor” for representing Mr. Hussain Haqqani. These are lawyers talking! I guess no one should be surprised since the Mumtaz Qadris of this land are showered with petals by men of my ilk. Plus, thanks to a broken legal education/regulation system, there is little emphasis on ethics or professional responsibility.

There is nothing wrong with lawyers voicing political views when they act as citizens. But using the platform of bar associations to lend support to views furthered by certain political parties is deeply problematic. Bar associations in Pakistan, if they were to do their jobs properly, should have a lot on their plate already. Promises of protests aimed at dislodging a government can wait. The Supreme Court will not emerge stronger because of blocked streets and diverted traffic. Why don’t these leaders encourage people to protest in their free time but retain their focus on representing the millions of litigants first?

There is a further danger here. Any statements, express or implicit, by members of the judiciary endorsing such a protest movement will deepen an appearance of bias against certain political parties generally and more particularly the PPP. Regardless of how passionately these leaders of bar associations feel about their cause, although arguably absurd in the overall context, the appearance of impartiality is precious and must be preserved — lawyers and judges must play their role in maintaining it.

The Lawyers Movement achieved many positives but we cannot remain ignorant of its negative repercussions. In some ways, it has changed the audience for both lawyers and judges. It has increased the temptation to take on causes that may well lie beyond a proper sphere of responsibility. The sources of legitimacy, as perceived by the actors in the Bar-Bench domain, seem to be shifting. This could explain, among other things, more activist courts. And it is the responsibility of members of the legal fraternity to press these points till we arrest the dangers posed.

Protests and strikes by lawyers hurt those to whom we owe our greatest and foremost responsibility; our clients. Judges at the lower court levels are often bullied into accepting that no lawyers will show up on the day of a strike. Hence they cannot use measures like imposing costs to discipline such behaviour. The Lawyers Movement has also strengthened the sense of impunity with which lawyers engage in unruly behaviour. It is despicable each time lawyers assault members of the police force or show disrespect towards a judge. In most instances, such actions go unpunished by the professional regulatory bodies. Next time you see a lawyer screaming in the streets about Gilani’s actions, feel free to remind him of how members of his own ilk act with impunity too since they too have never been disciplined.

We are all entitled to our viewpoints and feelings as ordinary citizens. But our professional standing, whatever it may be, often imposes different demands. Those must be respected and if our aim is to create a society that exhibits greater respect for the letter and spirit of the law, then the legal fraternity should start with setting its own house in order first. Whether or not the PM resigns because of protests will not affect the lives of millions of indigent litigants before our courts. Musharraf was a different issue; here we can let the court process and democracy play out.

I think we can safely say that Pakistan’s citizens will be better off if we, the lawyers, and leaders of our fraternity spend our energies focusing on helping those appearing before the courts (including policemen) rather than screaming our heads off in the vain hope that the PM quits. In an instance that can define irony, one leader of a bar association questioned Mr Gilani’s priorities by pointing to his foreign tours. In the same breath the gentleman promised protest marches. Misplaced priorities indeed.

The writer is a Barrister and an Advocate of the High Courts. He is currently pursuing his LL.M in the US and can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @wordoflaw