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Alternative Dispute Resolution Gains Traction in Pakistan

December 18, 2019

By Syed Abbas Hussain

With around 1.7 million cases pending in Pakistani courts, the judiciary has exceeded its capacity. Cases span decades, sometimes outliving the litigants. The conventional process of court trials is both resource intensive and time consuming. Countless citizens seeking justice therefore face grim prospects.

“Litigation is a scenario in which you go in as a bull but leave as a sausage,” remarked Justice Mansoor Ali Shah of the Supreme Court of Pakistan at a November seminar in Lahore. The seminar, Mediation—A New Code of Adjudication, was organized by The Asia Foundation and the Kinnaird College for Women, at their Lahore campus, to explore the challenges, opportunities, and new developments in alternative dispute resolution (ADR) in the 21st century.

ADR is fast gaining policy traction in Pakistan. Recent legislation includes Islamabad’s ADR Act, 2017; the Punjab Alternate Dispute Resolution Act, 2019; and the Code of Civil Procedure (Sindh Amendment) Bill, 2018. Since 2017, in the wake of judicial reforms, The Lahore High Court (LHC) has been taking initiatives to mainstream “court-annexed mediation,” a procedure whereby judges refer cases to mediators assigned by the LHC. The mediations take place at centers built within a court complex. During the seminar, Justice Shah described a typical ADR center as “a comfortable lounge where the mediator is often seen to offer tea and biscuits to litigants.”

Pakistan law firm

A government law firm in Islamabad. Pakistan’s courts are routinely clogged with cases. (Photo: Conor Ashleigh / The Asia Foundation)

Training ADR practitioners is a key priority of the LHC’s strategic roadmap, Vision: 2017. Approaching this tilt towards ADR as an entry point, The Asia Foundation engaged with the LHC to discuss joint capacity building initiatives. The Foundation subsequently conducted a series of trainings on ADR skills for judges nominated by the LHC. These have included a mediation training for judges from Punjab at the Punjab Judicial Academy in November 2017 and another on referral mechanisms in Punjab at the end of last year. These activities have taken place under the flagship of The Asia Foundation’s project, Mainstreaming ADR for Equitable Access to Justice in Pakistan. The Foundation has a global capacity building portfolio that boasts a corps of leading international experts who have conducted training both locally and internationally.

At the Kinnaird College seminar, the Foundation’s rule-of-law team lead, Mr. Sharafat Ali, laid out two broad areas of project focus: capacity building for practitioners, and academic training and research. The Foundation has developed promotional materials such as pamphlets and brochures to facilitate outreach and is making progress building stakeholder buy-in and facilitating the demand-led process of strengthening ADR in the country.

There has also been a palpable impact at the grassroots level. The ADR discourse is permeating communities, which are warming to the idea of an alternative to the courts for resolving disputes. In fact, the concept wasn’t completely alien to begin with. Informal dispute resolution has existed on the subcontinent for many years—for instance, in the form of tribal councils, most commonly referred to as jirgas. In Islamic tradition, mediation is considered a practice conducive to social harmony.

The seminar “Mediation—A New Code of Adjudication” was organized by The Asia Foundation and the Kinnaird College for Women in Lahore, Pakistan. (Photo: Abbas Hussain / The Asia Foundation)

Mr. Shahzeb Saeed, district and sessions judge in the city of Chakwal, described to the Kinnaird seminar how community members in his jurisdiction now tend to refer to ADR centers as “friendship centers.” He endorsed the efficacy of the system and noted that 60 percent of all the cases referred to ADR centers in Chakwal thus far have been duly resolved.

The ADR model is yielding positive results internationally. In a February 2018 article for, Leonardo d’Urso, CEO of the ADR Centre Rome (and a member of our ADR project’s “core group”), noted that Turkey had received 30,828 mediation requests and achieved a 72 percent settlement rate in just the preceding month. In Italy, he continued, “virtually everyone now agrees that the net results of the current mediation model have been positive.”

In Pakistan, where the need is clear, alternative dispute resolution promises to have trickle-down effects on other parts of society. The swift resolution of commercial disputes, where ADR is gaining traction, for example, should improve the confidence of domestic and foreign investors.

Syed Abbas Hussain is senior program officer for alternative dispute resolution with The Asia Foundation in Pakistan. He can be reached at [email protected]. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the authors, not those of The Asia Foundation.

Related locations: Pakistan
Related programs: Law and Justice
Related topics: Access to Justice, Alternative Dispute Resolution


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