A new type of reform program is changing the legal infrastructure in Pakistan, helping dispense justice more quickly and fairly - especially for the poor and oppressed

Many poor people in Pakistan don't know their legal rights. They feel oppressed as a result of being treated inconsiderately by bureaucrats, police, and the courts. This combination of ignorance and fear of intimidation means that many of the vulnerable, especially women, are denied justice - if they venture to seek it at all.

A wide-ranging Access to Justice Program (AJP), launched in late 2001, has helped change all this by reforming the law, improving the system of administering justice, and enhancing capacity. Assisted by a $350 million assistance package by ADB, the program focuses on services to provide people with equal protection under the law.

The AJP, which treats the justice sector - legal profession, police, prosecution, judiciary - as an integrated system, has created important changes in three ways. First, it has helped enact laws and created or reformed organizations that empower citizens to assert their rights. As a result of the AJP, freedom of information laws now provide a legal right to access information held by the state. The program has also strengthened ombudsman laws and streamlined processes to better enable citizens to obtain redress against government maladministration. Moreover, a reformed contempt of court law allows greater freedom of expression, and consumer protection laws empower citizens in the market place. Second, the program addresses public expenditure in the justice sector. Third, it is enhancing the capacity of judges, lawyers, and government servants who deal with the public.

"The poor can access information much more easily as a result of information laws introduced at federal and provincial levels," says ADB's Hamid Sharif, who helped initiate the project. "Explanations of the laws are being published in Urdu and public information kiosks have been set up in many district courts."

Government and civic public complaints systems are now in operation to ensure more accountability. Through public participation in oversight, policy and planning, and consultation on justice services, liaison between justice officials and the public has increased.

Centers of Excellence

To raise legal education and training standards, a National Law University has been established as a center of excellence. ADB supported the first law clinic at the University of Peshawar, set up with the collaboration of a leading nongovernment organization, Aurat Foundation. The law clinics will help improve the legal skills of students, who, in turn, will help poor clients who are unable to pay for legal services.

In a system known for lengthy delays, the AJP has helped improve the case-management system through automation and monitoring of service delivery. High courts' teams check the performance of subordinate court judges, including case and case-flow management, case-review disposal, and quality of judgments. District judges inspect jails. As an example of improved management, family laws have been amended to speed up divorce cases, reducing the time to complete such cases to less than 2 years.

A study in 2006 showed that the overall (expected) average duration for cases at the district courts has dropped from 13.28 to 8.63 months, an improvement of 5 months. A study carried out in 2005 revealed higher disposals per judge and the average case load per judge fell from 834 to 753 at district court level.

In another move to cut delays, special courts are now dealing with small claims in each district, and courts can refer a matter for alternative dispute resolution. This scheme was piloted in 10 district courts and is being extended across rovinces. The results are impressive, with criminal cases being decided in less than 2 years.

Falling budget allocations over many decades have been a major cause of poor police and judicial services. The AJP has helped increase resources for the provincial judiciary in all four provinces. Budget allocations for the police have also risen.

Inadequate compensation packages for lower court judges have been a major reason for poor performance. As a result of AJP action, subordinate judges now have a judicial allowance ranging from 27% to 56% of the basic salary. An additional 10% of the salary as utility allowance and transport assistance has been provided by Balochistan, North- West Frontier Province, and Sindh.

Promoting Gender Equality

As a result of the program's promotionof gender equality and the Ministry of Law's affirmative gender action policy, the proportion of women in the judiciary rose from 5.27% to 9.75% between 2001 and 2007.

"Mistreatment by police has been a common complaint by the poor and the police have been reorganized so that special law officers - who are trained in gender issues - deal with the poor," says M. Sarwar Khan, ADB's senior legal and governance specialist. "Also, public safety and police complaint commissions and citizenpolice liaison committees are in operation to provide civic oversight and policy input to redress public grievance."

Dedicated prosecution services have been established in all provinces, which will help check the quality of investigation.

The AJP supported the first national consultation on ombudsman services and reviewed ombudsman laws and internal processes to enable speedier relief against maladministration and ensure citizens receive entitlements.

Although the AJP formally closed on 30 June 2008, federal and provincial governments are continuing to implement its access to justice agenda. A $25 million endowment Access to Justice Development Fund is supporting various legal empowerment research and service delivery projects. The remaining $305 million is being used as investments in reforms and new infrastructure. The $20 million technical assistance supported soft reforms. The AJP's success has generated local ownership and capacity in the Ministry of Law and 31 implementing agencies, which is resulting in local demand for justice reforms and donor willingness to invest in the justice sector.

Further reflecting confidence in the AJP, ADB has been asked by the government to help prepare a Punjab Access to Justice Program.