Pursuing Justice in Pakistan

For too long, Pakistan’s justice system has been daunted by an endemic lack of capacity to administer justice, especially to poor citizens unversed in the law. It is difficult to pursue fairness and justice in the country, as citizens often find themselves hedged in by a number of institutional and social obstacles in trying to access the police and courts. This leads to mounting dissatisfaction with legal institutions and causes citizens to disengage with the state—to the point of not seeking them out in case of disputes.

This blog draws attention to the main barriers to accessing justice with a focus on social barriers—principally clientelism—to explain their role in conditioning the relationship between citizens and legal institutions.

There are several institutional barriers that block access to justice. These barriers are baked into the legal system itself. They raise the costs of accessing justice, which is a legitimate concern. Most poor people hold back from seeking out formal legal institutions simply because they cannot afford them (Sandefur, 2010). There are three types of institutional barriers that are a critical tipping point in raising the costs of accessing justice — physical, financial and legitimacy barriers (Shami, 2021).


Distance matters

Physical barriers are related to physical distance. In most developing societies, judicial buildings are located within cities, becoming largely inaccessible to people living in rural areas (Vapnek et al., 2016). Traveling long distances is expensive and takes up too much time. In Afghanistan, for example, Afghans living in the countryside are largely cut off from courthouses and other judicial bodies because they are located in the main cities, far out of reach of the rural populace (Jensen, 2011). In Pakistan, due to long distances to courts, the poor—especially women—face high costs of accessing formal justice institutions (Chaudhary, 1999). As a result, varying local folk systems of law like Panchayats step in to take their place in the village and tribal areas (Acemoglu et al., 2019). The authority and trust in the state are dangerously undermined in the process.


High costs

The financial costs of judicial services are also prohibitively high sometimes, making them inaccessible to the rural poor. Due to slow procedures and high caseload, court cases become prolonged for long periods significantly increasing costs (Maru, 2009). For example, the resolution of an inheritance case can take around two years on average with anywhere between 5,000 PKR and 200,000 PKR in costs. Business-related cases are resolved faster, but sometimes even they can take around six months with high costs for the people involved (Siddique, 2013). Apart from formal costs associated with judicial services, people also bear the brunt of informal costs arising from corruption and bribery. A survey done in Southern Punjab in Pakistan showed that many respondents had to pay bribes to judges and court administrators to use their services (Galway Development Services International, 2015).


Legitimacy concerns

Confidence in legal institutions in Pakistan is considerably low. A deep-rooted mistrust of legal institutions leads to reduced demand for legal solutions for resolving disputes (Shami, 2021) and exacerbates disillusionment with dispute resolution bodies (Jackson et al., 2014). This could be due to pervasive corruption, harassment, unfair treatment, and/or ineffectiveness (Tankebe, 2010). A distrust of the police and courts erodes the legitimacy of formal institutions and ultimately obstructs access to justice, especially in developing countries.

This has enabled powerful non-state actors to step in and replace state actors by providing competing services such as dispute resolution, protection and public goods. Commonly, low levels of access to and trust in the state fuel closer associations with Panchayats—the primary alternative to state courts in rural Pakistan. Panchayats consist of village elders and notable locals, whose rulings typically depend on cultural norms and go against the laws promulgated by the Pakistani state (Acemoglu et al., 2019). Hence, a lack of legitimacy of the state actors leads to the spread of non-state dispute resolution forums and spawns widespread discontent.


Clientelism and the case of rural Hafizabad

 It goes without saying that removing institutional barriers is important for the health of the judicial system and institutional reforms are effective in making justice more accessible. At the same time, it is important to acknowledge social barriers to justice such as race, ethnicity, and gender. While a great deal of scholarship has focused on institutional barriers, it still needs to pick up the social facets of these barriers, particularly barriers arising from asymmetric power relations or clientelism.

Clientelism is a face-to-face exchange relationship between unequal groups — patrons/landlords and clients (Mason, 1986). On the one hand, there are clients who have little to no assets. On the other, there are patrons who are figures of authority with command over resources and who are responsible for ensuring that their client’s basic needs are met (Powell, 1970). Patrons deliver goods and services such as employment, housing, protection, and dispute resolution. In return, clients offer cheap labor and electoral support to shore up the patron’s popularity (Scott and Kerkvliet, 2017).

The exchange in clientelism depends on the relative bargaining power of the two sides. Unsurprisingly, patrons have greater bargaining power and hence stronger control over their clients. This in turn allows patrons to regulate their clients’ third-party interactions (Basu, 1986) including the way that they access the police or courts (Shami, 2021). Clients normally comply with their patrons’ demands so that they don’t lose all access to the patrons’ resources.

While clientelism has its roots running deep across Pakistan, rural Hafizabad in Punjab particularly demonstrates the salience of clientelism in defining access to justice for rural citizens.  Hafizabad is a rice-producing district with entrenched inequality and strong clientelistic nexuses (Shami, 2012). There are two types of villages in the district — “landlord-dominated” villages and “peasant-based” villages (Shami, 2021). After link roads were constructed in 1998, villages that were isolated earlier became connected to main cities. This allows for an additional comparison between isolated and connected villages. Data collected from these villages help in explaining the role of clientelistic power relations in conditioning access to justice.

In peasant-based villages, a disproportionately higher percentage of households are willing to seek judicial services in case of disputes than in landlord-dominated villages. In landlord-based villages, landlords wield their power to accompany their clients to the police or courts, making them less inclined to access the official judicial system. In peasant-based villages however, landlords do not have such power (Shami, 2021). Additionally, it becomes apparent that patrons are able to maintain patronage powers when inequality becomes coupled with isolation. When villages become connected to the city, there is a greater chance that people living in those villages would go to the police independently (Shami, 2021).

The judicial system in Pakistan finds itself starved of resources while facing impossible caseloads. To make things worse, clientelistic challenges are increasingly on the rise. To overcome these challenges, state institutions need to become more accessible. For example, the situation in rural Hafizabad crucially points to the need for increasing villagers’ access to formal policing. A way to do so would be to connect villages to the external market so that villagers can go to the police directly. This will—at least partly—wrest power away from the landlords and make villagers more aware of the value of the relationship with their patrons. Thus, to truly change the way justice is pursued in the country, changes that are feasible and would have substantial, long-lasting effects need to be made all around—at institutional, physical, and social levels.



Acemoglu, D., Cheema, A., Khwaja, A., & Robinson, J. (2018b). Trust in State and Non-State Actors: Evidence from Dispute Resolution in Pakistan. The University of Chicago Journals.

Galway Development Services International. (2015), EU Punjab Access to Juctice Project: Public Knowledge, Attitudes and Perceptions of Justice: Report of a Household Survey in Southern Punjab Districts.

Jensen, K. (2011), ‘Obstacles to Accessing the State Justice System in Rural Afghanistan’, Indiana Journal of Global Legal Studies, 18: 929–50.

Maru, V. (2009), ‘Access to Justice and Legal Empowerment: A Review of World Bank Practice’, Justice and Development Working Paper Series 9.

Mason, D. (1986), ‘Land Reform and the Breakdown of Clientelist Politics in El Salvador’, Comparative Political Studies, 18: 487–516.

Powell, J. D. (1970), ‘Peasant Society and Clientelist Politics’, American Political Science Review, 64: 411–25. Sandefur, R. L. (2010), ‘Classical Approaches and New Directions’, in R. L. Sandefur, ed. Access to Justice: Classical Approaches and New Directions. Emerald/JAI Press.

Shami, M. (2021). Access to Justice in Clientelist Networks. The British Journal of Criminology62(2), 337–358.


Izza Malik is a Research Assistant at the Consortium for Development Policy Research.