The Bar Councils and Associations are not a political movement. Established pursuant to The Legal Practitioners and Bar Council Act, 1973; the bodies of the lawyers do not have a mandate to act as self-proclaimed guardians of the Constitution and vanguards upholding the rule of law. The enabling Act spells out the functions, and the scope, these bodies can perform. Our Bar Councils, for instance, have been established to admit persons as advocates on its rolls and maintain the common rolls, hold examination for the purposes of admission, make inquiries and determinations on the conduct of lawyers, safeguard the rights, privileges and interests of advocates, manage the funds, promote and suggest law reforms and conduct the elections of its members etc. There is no provision in law that allows the lawyers’ bodies to make political comments or critique the role of coordinate branches.
The legislative history of the The Legal Practitioners and Bar Council Act, 1973 is an interesting one. A specific section 59A was introduced on 15.07.1982 that prohibited the Bar Councils and Associations from indulging in any political activity. This section was later removed on 28.08.1987. The absence of an express prohibition in law now is certainly not a license for the lawyers’ bodies to slide into a political thicket – especially when their functions are enlisted in the enabling Act. Nor do our Bar Councils and Associations claim that they draw the power from the enabling Act to issue edicts on political questions. They argue that they don’t need a statutory sanction for it. It is more of a divine right argument they peddle – as they claim to embody the collective conscience of the society and they must intervene, they say, as an interest group in greater national interest. These arguments, we know all too well, to act arbitrarily, have been levered by all usurpers of the text of the Constitution; and by every justice in the robes who abused his exalted station.
The bigger issue around the debate of political involvement is the optics of it. Once the lawyers’ bodies indulge in political activities, it is hard for them not to appear partisan. The Islamabad Bar Council issued a press release on 07.05.2022 criticizing the role of Governor Punjab and his letter to the army chief. The press release added “…the conduct of the Governor is unbecoming of the constitutional office he holds…”. In the past, the Sindh High Court Bar Association carried a resolution on 04.04.2022 condemning the “President’s unconstitutional and mala fide dissolution of assemblies on the advice of the Prime Minister…”. The Supreme Court Bar Association has not even bothered to disassociate itself from the political posturing of its president.
The lawyers’ bodies issued no press release when the members defected in Islamabad and Lahore or when the suo motu was taken by the Supreme Court on a Sunday, or when Mr Shahbaz Sharif and Maulana Fazal ul Rehman conducted a presser right after the suo motu notice was taken in which they stated they would not accept a decision couched in the doctrine of necessity – threatening a nationwide strike if that were to happen. Was it not an obstruction of justice. And was the rule of law not undermined then? Presuming their fidelity to the Constitution, Bars also did not issue press releases, in support of the separation of powers, when the courts overreached and directed a specific day and time to conduct the vote in the National Assembly first and then later in the Punjab for the oath of younger Sharif. How do the lawyers’ bodies calibrate a selection of a political event for a comment and yet appear impartial? The nature of political business is such that one can never appear or act as “neutral” – haven’t we learned that by now. Every time the Bar Councils and Associations give sermons on political matters; they undermine the integrity of the institution.
Our Bar Councils already have a lot on their plate. They operate in a country with one of the worst-performing judicial systems in the world. The profession of law needs a major intervention on a policy level. But the focus of the office bearers is not on legal reforms, regulation of the profession, or the revision of archaic legal syllabus taught at the schools. Instead, they use the platform of the Bars to advance their political ambitions or use it to pursue their judicial elevations. Further, the politicization of Bars, post the lawyers’ movement, has only corrupted the leadership of the Bar – eager to act as a pressure group for vested interests.
The legal compass needs a reset!