Judicial dictas, in almost all common law countries of note, have spurred the progression and development of fundamental rights discourse. From the most squalid of governments – apartheid South Africa to caste segregated India – the courts of law and equity have been the final bastion towards which a subjugated society could turn its eyes for a defense of their freedoms. When the frontiers of free speech were threatened with a new wave of restrictive legislations in the United States, it was Justice Brenan who rallied against censorship. When the contours of fundamental rights were attacked by the suspicion of cold war frenzy, it was Justice Harlan’s jeremiad on Jim Crow that came to the defense of the persecuted. This, and countless other examples, demonstrate that the arc of jurisprudence, developed by free-thinking judges has always bent towards justice, and banished the darkness of sinister ages through the light and glean of progression.

Sadly, in Pakistan, this trend of progressive jurisprudence has been conspicuously missing from our judicial pronouncements over the past several decades.

It is true that, from time to time, in a select few cases, a few members of the Superior Judiciary have made bold attempts to break the shackles of mechanical dispute resolution. However, as a general rule, our Courts have failed to develop and expand the ambit of domestic jurisprudence, to keep pace with international trends. At the very least, we can perhaps all agree that the District Judiciary has made no significant contributions towards our jurisprudential corpus over the past many years. As a result, our trial courts, and by extension our superior Courts, have simply become an institution that mechanically applies the black letter law, merely as a tool of dispute resolution, as opposed to breaking new grounds in the development and progression of fundamental rights.

While the root cause of this problem can be traced to a variety of issues including sub-standard education in our law schools, defects in the process of selecting and appointing qualified judges, and huge backlog of pending cases (which leaves little time for development of law), a major contributing factor towards scarce developments of modern jurisprudence, is also the lack of continuing education and training of members of the District (and Superior) Judiciary.

The issue of continuing judicial education, especially for the District Judiciary, is a relatively easier fix, and one that falls squarely under the domain of the respective Provincial and Federal Judicial Academies.

To this end, this week, in a much needed development, the Punjab Judicial Academy (PJA), an institution that has been largely ineffective in the past, organized the national conference on “Key Issues and Challenges in Judicial Education”, under the auspices of honorable judges of the Lahore High Court, and particularly the able leadership of Justice Mansoor Ali Shah. This conference, which included speakers from the United States, India, and all the Provinces of Pakistan, presented their expert opinions on issues as varied as ‘Curriculum Development’, ‘Continuing Education’, use of ‘Information Technology’, and ‘Alternate Dispute Resolution’ methodologies. Finally, this daylong conference concluded with a joint resolution, the “Lahore Declaration on Judicial Education”, which incorporated key recommendations forwarded by different speakers, as well as those incorporated through participation of the conference attendees.

The impetus and initiative behind this conference, as an initial step towards raising the standard of our District Judiciary (as well as Superior Judiciary?), is commendable. However, it must be remembered that it is only a first step. And the real work, in terms of finding our way back to jurisprudential light starts now, with efforts to implement the recommendations made in the Lahore Declaration on Judicial Education.

From a structural perspective, the Punjab Judicial Academy (PJA), formed under the Punjab Judicial Academy Act, 2007 (Act), is responsible for “imparting training to the judicial officers and court personnel with a view to develop their capacity, professional competency and ethical standards for efficient dispensation of justice.” Working under the control and supervision of the honorable Lahore High Court, PJA is responsible for imparting “training”, developing “skills”, conducting “examinations”, promoting skills of “judicial reasoning” and “ethical values” (section 4 of Act), in a manner that is “at par with international standards” (section 5 of Act). And a Board, headed by the honorable Chief Justice of LHC, working through the Director General of PJA, is responsible for laying down the “policy and program” for PJA, and for evaluating its “performance” (section 8 of Act).

This structural paradigm is more than sufficient for the PJA, and other Judicial Academies, to shake out of their respective slumbers and embrace the job at hand.

It is time that, with the help of domestic and international experts, the PJA introduces a rigorous program for the development of judicial acumen and expertise, among members of the District Judiciary. In this regard, it is important to evolve a progressive curriculum, in step with international best practices, that helps expand the jurisprudential frontiers of our District Judiciary, by allowing them to peek into comparative legal doctrines being developed across the world.

It is also important to introduce our District Judiciary to a wide range of experts who do not belong to the field of law. Only a curriculum of comparative studies – one that includes history, religion, psychology, philosophy, international business and global commercial transactions – would allow our District Judges to better deliberate upon and resolve conflicts of the modern age. And in this regard, a collaboration with international experts from disparate jurisdictions, would help build synergies that benefit the empire of our domestic law.

Conducting classes, and holding seminars, however, will not do the trick by itself. It is up to the respective Judicial Academies, and the Superior Judiciary, to ensure the implementation of a rigorous and ongoing evaluation program that monitors the adaptation of this fresh knowledge-base by our District Judges.

This process is less daunting than it sounds. The availability of resources – financial as well as intellectual – is not the primary hindrance that stands in the path of this progression. What has been lacking, all through our judicial history, is a deliberate and concerted effort by the superior Courts to implement these measures.

This culture of apathy towards judicial education, at least to the extent of Punjab Judicial Academy, and the honorable Lahore High Court, seems to be turning a new page. The success of this endeavor, however, lies in the collective effort and support of this initiative, by individuals belonging to varied professions.

It is time that all of us who have a stake in a just society – doctors, engineers, lawyers, social scientists, and government officials – step forth and lend some fraction of our efforts to the improvement of judicial education in Pakistan. Only in this way can we ensure that our children inherit a project of justice that is anchored to the shores of progress.

    The writer is a lawyer based in Lahore.

    He has a Masters in Constitutional Law from Harvard Law School.