Sharifan Bibi was an elderly widow. In her gentle, wrinkled face, were deep soulful eyes. If one were to look inside, the pain and helplessness contained in them seemed endless in depth, as if time had stood still and not a single ripple had been caused in spite of the enormity of her ordeal; her smile of gratitude was strained and did more than cause a painful lump in my throat.
She had been sent to my office by the Lahore High Court Bar Association nine years ago. With a broken heart and an even more broken spirit, she was still graceful and regal. Having been persecuted for nearly 14 years by a malicious and calculating neighbour, she had lost nearly everything she had to his greed and endless litigation. Her husband had passed away, leaving her with several young children. Unlike many others, she had risen up to the enormous challenge and started a small carpet manufacturing enterprise in her own home, in a humble locality in Lahore. Somewhere along the line, the government introduced a lottery scheme, the Savers’ Raffle, and Sharifan Bibi bought a few tickets. As if the goddess of good fortune were smiling down on her, one of her tickets came up for a prize. Vested with a good brain, she opted to invest in property and bought a small house a few yards down from her own and a plot of land located further away. Her brother decided to buy the house next door to her new one and, with mutual consent, they both left parts of their land as a private passage to the old house, situated at the back. Unknown to both, a conniving neighbour, jealous of her good fortune was planning on usurping her property.
This neighbour filed a false case, claiming that the private passage left by the elderly widow was in fact public property. As litigation ensued, Sharifan Bibi started to lose her income and business — the numerous court appearances and false applications at various forums were taking their toll. Not satisfied, the neighbour, aided by his four sons in government service, including two in the police, lodged an attempted murder case against Sharifan Bibi’s sons. They were arrested and sent to jail until they made bail. During their incarceration, the eldest lost his mental equilibrium. The trial had been going on for four years, with the complainant avoiding to give evidence, when Sharifan Bibi came to us. By then she had lost her entire business, her original house, the plot and half of her new house. Her sons were forced to become vendors and daily labourers, her eldest became psychologically impaired and never recovered.
Constrained to a single basic meal a day, she was unable to pay the legal fees required to sustain the endless litigation, which had gone through the civil courts, the district court and was pending in the high court, not to mention the trial pending before the magistrate and other frivolous complaints filed all over the place. We were able to salvage her remaining property and her sons were honourably acquitted but at what cost? To date, the family has not been able to regain their former social standing. They are just getting by, day in day out. A case for damages for malicious prosecution was filed on behalf of the sons but was dismissed on technical grounds while the appeals are still pending.
Javed was another client who had existed peacefully with his neighbour, a homeopathic doctor. One fine day, the ‘doctor’ changed his profession and obtained a degree, which he thought entitled him to unsettle others. Javed’s property was commercial. He had a trunk-making business, which his neighbour decided should stop even though it had not bothered him for 15 years. A criminal complaint was filed against Javed by this ‘no-more-only-doctor’, where he claimed that he had been forcefully dispossessed of his land, which in fact was Javed’s house. Criminal proceedings started. Javed’s income and business started taking a hit and, unable to afford legal costs, he turned to us. Eventually, the matter was settled and he was able to lead a relatively normal life.
There are many hardships in this world but the worst is being poor or possessing inadequate resources; all other kinds of afflictions arise out of this one basic source. Having butted my head against a mostly stone wall for several years now in my capacity as a legal aid counsel, I was indeed literally over the moon upon the formulation of the National Judicial Policy 2009. The policy, among others, proposes that in order “to check filing of false and frivolous cases the courts should impose compensatory costs under section 35-A of CPC. Similarly, on the pattern of High Court of Sindh, the other high courts may also amend the relevant rules for incorporation of a provision to impose a cost up to Rupees one lac for false, frivolous and vexatious litigation.”
There are litigants, then there are other litigants and within these there is a sub-category of ‘professional litigants’. These people have no better way to utilise their time than to spend it in the courts. Their entire existence is focused on creating nuisance value for all mankind, who are roped into their craftily woven net. However, why are these people able to go on, year after year, destroying lives and usurping valuable court time with impunity, without ever getting a tight slap of ‘compensatory costs’ on their faces?
Why do people feel that they have to achieve the impossible: relief? Relief, before the court of law on merit, relief to the downtrodden and already miserable people, relief in efficacious and speedy manner, relief so that justice is not only done but is seen to be done? Our superior courts are, by and large, dispensing justice but the backlog is huge and the fresh institution is more so. However, whatever the criticism may be on the judiciary, the fact of the matter remains that it is the only institution that is perceived by the ordinary man as the last resort forum to redress his grievances — to achieve justice. By justice, I refer to substantial justice and relief and not mere disposal of cases by dismissing them blindly on technical grounds.
There is another side to this story: the provision of effective legal aid. Many organisations claim to undertake ‘pro bono’ litigation but the sad story is that, in most cases, it is just a cover for obtaining funding from foreign donors. Writing a couple of letters to the president does not make for pro bono litigation — one has to climb down into the depths of despair and cause a ripple in soulful eyes. The essence of legal aid lies in making time move again, in a better direction to reduce the magnitude of pain and helplessness, to make sure a smile reaches the eyes again.
The writer is an advocate of the High Court