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Legislation and governments

Huzaima Bukhari

Laws are spider webs through which the big flies pass and the little ones get caught”–Honore de Balzac

The interesting thing about legislation in a country is that those who understand its significance are the ones who are actually observing the law like obedient citizens and the ones who care no less, blatantly flout it without any fear of prosecution. So, in the words of Hilary Mantel: “When you are writing laws you are testing words to find their utmost power. Like spells, they have to make things happen in the real world, and like spells, they only work if people believe in them.”

In a country like ours, a few issues have been observed consistently. One, laws are made in a foreign language not understood by the majority of the people. Two, laws especially ones that are applicable on everyday basis (sales tax, income tax etc.) are worded in the most complex manner conceivable by the legislature. Three, laws are understandably violated by those who do not know English and by those who do know English but are rich and powerful enough to frustrate any attempt to be made accountable. Four, only the weaker segment of society is caught, prosecuted and punished because ignorance of law is no excuse.

A cursory look at the traffic might explain how this works. It has commonly been observed that the shabbiest of vehicles (mainly motorcycles) are stopped, searched and fined for the minutest of offences as they are easily stoppable but a land cruiser, obviously owned by the rich and powerful is allowed to whiz past a red light and no police warden attempts to stop or even follow it for violation. When the traffic wardens were newly-inducted in the Punjab, there was a short period of discipline with effective enforcement of rules and just when things began to get smooth all this vanished largely in thin air.

Similarly, the public is supposed to abide by the laws laid down for paying customs duty, sales tax on goods and services, income tax, federal excise duty, property tax, etc. but some of these statutes that play a significant role in daily life are complicated, technical and are largely incomprehensible unless professional advice is sought. Besides, with the rapidly changing nature of these laws, it becomes highly difficult for ones falling in their sphere, to keep tract because by the time a legal dispute is settled in the courts, there may have been many amendments twisting the law completely. With this state of affairs one wonders at the ingenuity of the legislature that is bent upon promulgating laws, which most of the times it does so without doing its homework properly. Consequently, when anomalies and impracticalities come to light, they are forced to undergo massive changes, defying the sensibility of certainty. One cannot but admire the intellect of violators who effectively manage to veer around provisions much to the dismay of the legislature and enforcement bodies.

Perhaps Lao Tzu was not wrong when he said: “The more law and order are made prominent, the more thieves and robbers there will be.”

Undoubtedly, we are presently living in the era of humanity’s most complex societies which are being regulated on both local and international levels. All individuals, whether they realize it or not, are tightly encased in layers upon layers of moral and statutory regulations which they consciously or unconsciously observe and any deviation can result in extremely volatile situation for them. Now, if these laws are of such extraordinary importance and vital for the tranquility of society, should not these be written in a manner that can make sense to the ordinary folk, in language(s) they can read as emphasised in Article 251 of the Constitution of Islamic Republic of Pakistan, and should not they be more practical in essence?  

When parliaments of civilized democratic countries legislate, the process is long drawn, thoroughly researched backed up with essential data, highly debated, feedback of stakeholders obtained and depending upon the outcome, the law is either scrapped or promulgated honouring the public’s expectations and the government’s concerns. In his paper “Ten tips for transitioning to legal writing” Danielle Pineres aptly describes the process by using the following phrases, “Research, pre-write, draft, research again, think, re-organise, re-write, revise, proofread and finally—do it all over again after you have received feedback.”

This goes to prove that legislative exercise is no joke and requires tremendous efforts on the part of the law makers. It can be likened to designing and manufacturing a motor vehicle which calls for meticulous attention to details guaranteeing the comfort and safety of passengers. The amount of input that goes into creating a hi-tech object cannot be measured by a non-technical person. Likewise, legislation too demands a professional approach and cannot be left to the whims of persons who know nothing other than strictly guarding their own privileges and that of their loyalists. In doing so, the larger public interest is usually ignored that causes uneasiness provoking unrest and resistance to laws.


The writer, lawyer and author, is an Adjunct Faculty at Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), member Advisory Board and Senior Visiting Fellow of Pakistan Institute of Development Economics (PIDE).

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