Lawyers On The Loose: Explaining The Violent Turn In Pakistan’s Legal Fraternity







The storming of the Punjab Institute of Cardiology in Lahore by a riotous mob of lawyers – where they clashed with doctors and medical staff, vandalized hospital property, and remorselessly caused the death of a number of patients – is only the latest episode in a steadily escalating spiral of lawyers’ violence

Wukala gardi is not a new phenomenon, but two things stand out in the current situation. The first is the nature of, and motivation for, the assault. Lawyers’ ire is directed not at judges or other actors within the court system (something we have already come to accept as status quo). Neither does the issue relate to lawyers’ institutional or corporate interests. What we are witnessing is a collectivization of lawyers over a personal altercation. The second important observation is the sizable support within the legal fraternity, including its leadership, for providing amnesty to this mob violence. The few voices of sanity and censure come almost entirely from legal professionals not embedded within the bar.

The institution is truly beginning to look like a mafia, a law unto itself. How have things arrived at this low point? The answer lies in a combination of structural issues and the aftereffects of the lawyers’ movement (2007-2009).

A number of lawyers interviewed as part of a 2017 study on the movement and its aftermath, including both established and young lawyers, opined that there had been a rise in wukala gardi since the movement. The movement not only set a grand precedent for using agitational tactics to achieve institutional goals, but also gave lawyers a sense of entitlement and superiority over judges and other actors in the justice system. Some lawyers also pointed to the dramatic increase in the size of the bar in the past decade and the growing specter of undocumented money being channeled deep into the bar, not just from political parties but also real estate mafias, trade unions, and other influential interest groups.

Together, these transformations have led to confusion worse confounded. While many lawyers before this latest spate of violence clung to the belief that the perpetrators of wukala gardi were a small minority who could be contained through internal discipline, a series of incidents in the movement aftermath suggested otherwise. They pointed to a militant tendency of lawyers, at a much more systemic level, to preserve their turf and impose whimsical demands on the judicial system; and to do so through coercive means, involving strikes, boycotts and downright physical violence. A recurrent theme was the forced transfer of non-compliant judges.

The imbroglio in 2017 between Justice Mansoor Ali Shah (then Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court) and the lawyers of the Multan bar was a stark illustration of how lawyers had come to view themselves: superior, infallible, unanswerable. The conflict at that time had to do with lawyers reacting in virtual unanimity against the intervention of the judiciary in matters of the accountability of the bar. What was clear then to most discerning minds was that, no matter how diverse and divided the bar, on this particular issue of external accountability, it was a house veritably united. No serious condemnation – let alone disciplinary action – emerged forth from the custodians of the bar. Indeed, some bar leaders dreaded the prospect of disciplining their very own vote banks. Even the self-anointed messiah in the Supreme Court delivered but a slight rap on the knuckles. A momentous opportunity was lost for judicial pushback against rampaging lawyers.

Two years on, it is even less doubtful that lawyers’ impunity is now part of deeply institutionalized behavior. As the size of the bar expands, so do constituencies for violence. And as its purported ‘self-regulation’ degenerates into the rule of the mob, so does its capacity for holding law and order hostage to its impulses. The issues driving these impulses are no longer bound by institutional turf management; they extend generally to lawyers’ perceived slights to their social status, privilege and entitlement.

And yet, this is not a mafia that came about on its own. The non-response of state institutions – including the government, the judiciary, as well as so-called champions of justice within the bar – in favor of the status quo, is equally responsible in enabling this mob violence. You will find many veteran bar leaders – from across the ‘Professional’ and ‘Independent’ groups, and from among those holding offices in bar councils and associations – who will speak proudly of the bar’s anti-establishment politics. But none who will publicly account for this ignominious state of affairs. To the contrary, if the Pakistan Bar Council’s version of reality is to be given any credence, lawyers are the victims of police repression and state bias. Meanwhile, the judiciary feigns ignorance, and the government and law enforcement stay mostly on the sidelines of this saga, vacillating haplessly between action and appeasement.

Maryam S Khan is a research fellow at IDEAS Lahore. She holds a B.A. from Cornell University (US), Graduate Diploma in Law from the College of Law (UK), Bar-at-Law from Lincoln’s Inn (UK), and LL.M (Honors) from Yale Law School (US). In 2009-2010, she became the first Pakistani scholar to receive the Oscar M. Ruebhausen Yale South Asia Fellowship from Yale Law School for teaching and research on law and related themes in the context of South Asia. Maryam was formerly an Assistant Professor at the Law & Policy Program at LUMS.