Out of court In passing the Alternate Dispute Resolution Bill, 2017, the National Assembly is trying to codify – and hopefully improve – a system that is already in wide practice informally. In theory, ADRs are meant to arbitrate disputes in a speedier and less expensive manner than regular courts. They have the added benefit, especially applicable in Pakistan, of unclogging an overburdened judicial system. The ADR bill, which had the support – with some reservations – of the opposition parties, will introduce compulsory arbitration for 23 different civil and criminal matters, including land disputes, marriage dissolution and commercial issues like patent disputes. In addition, both parties can agree to seek to resolve their issues through the ADR. All disputes will be settled by a panel of ‘neutrals’ appointed by the government in consultation with the high courts, which should ensure that such cases are handled in a professional manner. The PPP had proposed setting aside seats for women in the panel, which would guard against the ADR Bill being used the way jirgas and panchayats are, where women are handed down ‘punishments’ like gang rape and treated as little more than the disposable property of the men in their families and tribes. The PPP’s suggestion should be taken up as an amendment to the bill. There is also no right to appeal the decisions of the panel, which could end up undermining the bill should they end up giving verdicts that do not honour the letter and spirit of the law. The most important function of the ADR Bill may be to bring a semblance of order to the unregulated jirga and panchayat systems. Right now, such alternatives to regular courts are widely used but they often hand out verdicts that contravene the constitution and the criminal code. But the only way the ADR Bill will be able to do this is if the government ensures it picks only qualified people to serve on the panel, limits the use of the panel only to the issues mentioned in the bill and makes sure that people are not coerced into going for the panels by those who wish to evade justice in the courts. The adoption of the ADR Bill should be accompanied by a renewed focus on cracking down on illegal jirgas. The law’s credibility will be shattered if jirgas continue to hand down the inhumane and barbaric verdicts they have become notorious for. There is an urgent need to unclog the judicial system and this bill could help but, as with most matters, its success will be entirely dependent on enforcement.