Feisal Naqvi

The Architecture of Justice in Pakistan

In Uncategorized on April 10, 2008 at 3:58 am

All buildings are statements. All government buildings are government statements. And all court buildings are statements reflecting what the men in power think about courts.

Take, for example, the great High Court buildings in Lahore and Karachi. Both buildings were built by the British at about the same time (late 1800s). Severe, imposing and neo-classical in form, the buildings present a massive and powerful face to the public. In each case, the public face of the building allows entry to judges and other officials only. The entrance for the ordinary people is not on the main road, which the buildings face but on the opposite side.

The statement that the High Court buildings make is a reflection of the best and worst features of the colonial ethic. The majesty of the law is publicly proclaimed and publicly upheld. But at the same time, the distinction between the rulers and the ruled is there for all to see. The public face of the High Court is accessible only to those who wield power; everyone else who comes to the court comes as a supplicant.

The statement made by the colonial High Court buildings is easily contrasted with the statement made by the building which houses the US Supreme Court. The US Supreme Court building is a simple neo-classical structure which faces one of the main avenues in Washington DC and sits on an elevated plinth approached by a series of steps. If you climb up those steps, you come to the main door of the court and if you keep on walking straight, you will immediately enter the main courtroom. Continue walking straight and you eventually reach the podium where, if you are so qualified, you can address the nine judges of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.

In symbolic (and actual) terms, the US Supreme Court faces the street. The rostrum from which lawyers address the court lies in a straight line from the public road. It is a building which shows that the basic function of the court is to help the citizen and that the judges are there to serve the public. It is the judges who enter from the side entrances, not the public. It is the judges who serve the public and not the public that serves the judges.

One may say that it is unfair to gauge Pakistan’s rulers on the basis of buildings inherited by them. To get a proper appreciation for what our democratic (and undemocratic) rulers think of justice, we need to look no further than the white marble mausoleum which houses the Supreme Court of Pakistan.

Like the US Supreme Court Building, the Supreme Court of Pakistan sits on an elevated plinth facing one of the main roads in the nation’s capital. Like the US Supreme Court, there are a series of steps leading from the main road to the entrance. Behind the impressively carved and decorated entrance door lies a great vaulted hall from which one can access all of the major courtrooms. But that is where the resemblance ends.

In the case of the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the steps are not open to the road. Instead, there is a fence and a gate, across the steps, that is permanently locked. The door which lies at the end of those steps and which faces the street is also permanently closed. The great hall which lies on the other side of that locked door is not a public space, but a space reserved for the court’s own use, a place where one is occasionally served tea and sandwiches at the receptions, references and other functions which dot the court’s calendar. And even if you do make it to the great hall, the entrances to the courtrooms from the great hall are not public entrances. Those are doors reserved for judges and open out immediately behind their desks. No ordinary member of the public can enter through them.

The difference between our colonial rulers and our self-elected (or self-appointed) rulers is therefore simply that we as Pakistanis feel the need only to acknowledge the public, not to actually accommodate them. The public entrance for the Supreme Court of Pakistan therefore lies hidden on the side of the grandiose public façade.

The first reaction of the unwary citizen who first enters the Supreme Court of Pakistan is that of confusion. The entrance opens up into a modest atrium but with no sign of a courtroom. If our citizen wants to go to the main courtroom, this is how he gets there:

  • Enter court building and continue straight until T-junction.

  • Turn right at T-junction, go straight, then walk around a strange triangular protrusion and continue straight.

  • After about another 15 yards, turn left towards stairs and then make a U-turn to go up the stairs.

  • At the top of stairs make another U-turn and walk across empty floor space to get to doors leading into main courtroom.

  • Make another U-turn to get into courtroom passageway and then finally turn right to enter courtroom.

We cannot blame the British for the design of the Supreme Court building. And even though the Supreme Court building was designed by a Japanese architect, we cannot blame the Japanese either. The poor architect who won the competition to design the building saw his design suffer so much at the hands of the aesthetes walking the corridors of power in Pakistan that he gave up in frustration and went home. Rumor has it that in the original design, the grand entrance hall was meant for public access, not for judges only. Obviously the Japanese needed to be educated into the realities of power in Pakistan.

At the time of independence, any right-thinking Pakistani would have been justified in feeling dissatisfied with the courts of his time. Today, we remember those days and those designs with fondness, but even the buildings which we have inherited appear destined to end up in the dustbin of history.

A year ago, portions of the Lahore High Court building were demolished. The demolition was stopped after a public outcry and subsequently a group of architects met with the High Court authorities in order to preserve the façade of the building and also accommodate the concerns of the High Court. For many months, the building remained derelict. Two weeks ago, however, the targeted wing of the old Lahore High Court building was demolished in an overnight maneuver at the behest of the High Court authorities. Some sources say that there may be plans to subject the opposite wing of the court building to the same fate in due course.

All buildings are statements. All government buildings are statements about power. All court buildings are statements by those in power about the nature of justice. Draw your own conclusions as to what the demolition of the Lahore High Court represents.

This article appeared in The Friday Times on September 16, 2005


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