Verdicts on Wheels: Pakistan’s Mobile Courts Sustain the Legal System in Rural Areas

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KHYBER PAKHTUNKHWA, Pakistan — In rural, strife torn areas like the province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Pakistan, a new initiative has quite literally put the nation’s lagging legal system back into motion.

It comes in the form of long green buses, not unlike mobile homes. Yet these vehicles, emblemized with Pakistan’s flag, don’t house tourists; they serve as mobile courts and extensions of the official Pakistani legal system.

Founded in 2013 with the assistance of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), this project has helped provide justice, conflict resolution and swift trials to more secluded and poorer areas of Pakistan.

The task is ambitious but also vitally necessary. For years, Pakistan has suffered from a judicial system plagued by inefficiency and stagnation. In 2013, the nation had 1.4 million pending legal cases. Many of these cases will drag on for years, and, in some cases, a decade. For numerous poor Pakistanis, paying legal fees and even finding access to court facilities has become a challenge.

These major flaws often frustrate the population, leading them to look elsewhere for justice. Most notably, many Pakistanis will rely on the traditional Jirga system to oversee and resolve disputes. Made up of local elders, the Jirga operates outside of the official Pakistani legal system and can provide the swift and certain rulings that the courts frequently fail to provide.

However, their rulings are often controversial and have spawned human rights complaints. Frequently, these all-male courts ignore the rights of both women and children. According to a Reuters report, some punishments include stonings and gang rapes.

Legal obstruction also can escalate local conflicts. In the absence of an efficient, overarching legal system, the Taliban and its Sharia law have gained traction among some Pakistanis in more rural regions like Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Naturally, the introduction of mobile courts has become a breath of fresh air for many Pakistanis frustrated by a lack of competent legal services. At one point in time, half of Pakistan’s rural residents had to travel to cities for justice. Soon, they can find it in their own backyards.

In one instance, two brothers, Sahar and Badam Gul, presented their costly and divisive 10-year legal dispute in a mobile court. It had already created a rift in the family and led to the deaths of two relatives. One of the local Jirga who had failed to mediate the quarrel himself claimed the court settled this case in the matter of a day.

Efficient rulings like that of the Gul brothers’ case are common among these dynamic courts. The average criminal case is resolved in less than two days in the mobile courts; the national average is around five years. The mobile courts have experienced similar success in dealing with civil cases. While the average civil case in one of these buses lasts merely six days, most Pakistanis would expect a decade long battle in one of the nation’s courts.

According to a Reuters report, Adnan Khan, a property dealer, found his case resolved in a mere “10 minutes within a mobile court. [His] case was running for the past six years in the court of a civil judge.”

By resolving tensions among people like Adnan, these buses have the potential to mitigate terrorism as they make their way through some of Pakistan’s most troubled regions where violence from groups like the Taliban have become widespread. The director of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Judicial Academy, Hayat Ali Shah, told The Wall Street Journal, “If people get justice, frustration is reduced and the chance of hatred and militancy is reduced.”

With as many as ten more mobile courts in the works, Pakistan and the UNDP are hoping to expand their work. More buses on the prowl means a happier, safer and more peaceful Pakistan.

Sources: Reuters, UNDP, WSJ
Photo: TNS

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