The top court has ruled that the conduct of PTI chairman and deposed premier Imran Khan had remained “willfully contumacious” and “disobedient” throughout the trial court proceedings in the defamation suit filed by Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif against him in 2017 when the latter was an opposition leader.
“[The] summary of the proceedings of the case in the trial court made during a period of four years, from the date of appearance of the petitioner (Imran Khan) on September 9, 2017 till September 22, 2021, gives credence to the contention of the respondent that the conduct of the petitioner has remained contumacious throughout the proceedings of the case in the trial court,” read a 17-page judgment authored by Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah.
The SC dismissed Imran’s appeal against the Lahore High Court order.
The LHC had upheld the trial court's decision to strike out the PTI chief’s right of defence in the defamation suit.
Justice Aminuddin Khan endorsed Justice Shah’s opinion. However, Justice Ayesha Malik dissented it.
“The way the proceeding was prolonged by the petitioner at every stage of the case in the trial court, to delay the decision of the case, is more than evident,” the SC verdict read.
The majority judgment noted that interrogatories served as a useful tool to shorten litigation and reduced litigational expenses.
"However, the process of interrogatories has unfortunately been abused in the present case and in fact misused to prolong the trial and add to the expenses. Such an abuse of the process of interrogatories has to be curbed with a heavy hand. The fair use of the process of interrogatories, as said by Justice Walsh, should be encouraged, for it would result in considerable saving of time and money and thus be beneficial to the parties of the case as well as to the administration of justice in general,” the SC noted.
The court observed that although the SC was aware of the fact that the judges of the trial courts performed the onerous task of dispensing justice at the grassroots level in stressful and challenging conditions as well as in a difficult and demanding environment, the leniency shown on their part in the matter of accommodating unjustified requests for adjournment, even at the cost of disregarding the timelines provided in the relevant laws, was “unwarranted”.
"A ‘peremptory order' of the court, which specifies a time to do a certain act in the proceedings of the case with a warning of last opportunity, must be followed by the legal consequences prescribed by the relevant law for its non-compliance,” the verdict read.
The SC observed that orders granting repetitive adjournments with warnings of “last and final” and “absolute last and final” opportunity became meaningless and shattered the confidence of the litigant public in the court's orders, consequentially weakening its authority.
"[A] Toothless court is the worst form of injustice. No matter how high or low in the pyramidal system, [it] is still a court of law and must not shy away from exercising its authority under the law,” the judgment noted.
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Justice Shah also observed that the inordinate delay in the conclusion of cases was the main challenge faced by the judiciary, which had a devastating effect on the credibility of the justice system and the public confidence reposed in it.
“A radical approach is required, as said by Lord Griffiths, to tackle the problem of delay in the litigation process by enforcing a court-controlled case management system, which should ensure that once a litigant has entered the litigation process, his case proceeds in accordance with a timetable as prescribed by rules of court. Litigants and their legal advisers must recognise that any delay, which occurs due to non compliance with the prescribed timetables, is assessed not only from the point of view of the prejudice caused to a particular litigant in whose case it occurs but also in relation to the negative effect it has on the overall administration of justice,” the verdict read.
The SC observed that the fair use of the process of interrogatories, therefore, ultimately resulted in an overall shortening of the trial and thus helped in achieving the constitutional goal of the inexpensive and expeditious dispensation of justice.
The court further noted that it was true that the provisions of a procedural law were ordinarily directory in nature and construed liberally to advance the cause of justice, as their main purpose was to facilitate its administration.
“The same purposive approach is to be adopted while construing and applying a procedural provision which provides a timeframe for doing a certain act necessary to the further progress of the case,” the court noted.
The SC noted that the main purpose of providing a timeframe in procedural rules was to expedite the hearing and conclusion of cases as well as to avoid unnecessary adjournments.
The judgment observed that despite the warning of the trial court, Imran did not submit his answers to the interrogatories of the respondent on November 24, 2022.
“Rather, he [Imran] made an application for further adjournment this time on the ground that he intended to file a revision petition against the order of the trial court dismissing his objections (application) for [the] rejection of the interrogatories,” the verdict read.
"The ground pleaded for seeking [the] adjournment was misconceived and untenable, as on the last four dates, the petitioner had been seeking adjournments for filing his answers to the interrogatories,” it continued.
The SC noted that Imran had filed the objections for the rejection of the interrogatories after seeking several opportunities for submitting his answers.
It added that the trial court rejected Imran’s application for further adjournment and struck out his right of defence, under Rule 21 of Order XI, vide its order dated November 24, 2022.
“In view of the noted facts and circumstances, we do not find any illegality or material irregularity in the exercise of its jurisdiction by the trial court in making the said order,” the judgment read.
Justice Ayesha, however, noted in her dissenting note that even though the order sheet did show that there were many adjournments, it also highlighted that often times, the court had proceeded in a routine manner without much focus on the reasons behind them.
The SC judge noted that in a case plagued by adjournments since 2017, the court must weigh the balance between a fair trial and the legitimate grounds for the request for the latest one.
"The petitioner's recent public shooting and injury at a political rally justified the grant of an adjournment for a reasonable time under the circumstances,” she pointed out.
"No doubt that the courts are overburdened with work and judges are faced with the daunting task of handling a vast number of cases every day, nevertheless, it is the court’s responsibility to manage each case before it diligently by applying the provisions of the procedural law,” Justice Ayesha observed.
“The striking out of the petitioner's right to defence, at this stage, while ignoring the legitimate factors in play, would be a gross injustice. The balancing act of justice must be upheld, and under these circumstances, the right to a fair defence must prevail,” she added.