In conversation with Justice Syed Mansoor Ali Shah – Judge of the Supreme Court Pakistan

Justice Shah, thank you for taking out time to speak with us today. In a couple of sentences, how would you describe yourself?
I am an easy-going and an open kind of a person. I try to stay positive. I like communicating with people. At an institutional level, I like to interact and reach out to all tiers of people. I also try to be easily available to officers working in my institution. Access improves communication within the institution and enhances efficiency and performance. I love new ideas and always want to explore them and try to change things for the better. When I became the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, one of things I did was to reach out to the female judges of the District Judiciary in order to understand their issues so I could resolve the problems they were facing. That’s how I got to know a lot more about the challenges they faced. I think better communication within the institution is key to building a healthy and a strong institution.

What did you want to do when you were younger?
I belonged to a business family, so I thought I would become a businessman one day. But fate had something else to offer. I had a keen interest in English Literature but by stroke of fate ended up doing law. I finally found that law was my area of interest, especially litigation. Always liked news ideas and the desire to explore new avenues. The law firm we set up was unique in the sense that it encouraged diversity and inclusivity. We opened our door to women lawyers interested in litigation – perhaps a first at that point of time. Ours was perhaps the only law firm which housed 8 to 15 women litigators, at different times. This has had a far-reaching effect for women and the legal practice.

Who was the most influential person in your life?
Several people influenced me as I went along. My father instilled hard work and resilience in me. He had nerves of steel and faced challenges with grace and calm. I have great respect for my mother, a strong woman, who made me understand the importance and advantage of a disciplined and an organized life. Looking up to my mother brought that deep respect and appreciation for women and perhaps pushed me into fighting the gender bias that permeates in our society. My law guru was Syed Jamshed Ali, who later retired as a Supreme Court judge. He taught me many things, but the most important was the ability to understand and interpret the law – in other words he helped me develop the eye for the law. My wife, an economist, and a lawyer by training, brings compassion and humility into my life. She keeps my ego under check. She is a tremendous support and helps me see through things clearly when my thoughts get clouded.

Growing up in a Pathan culture in Peshawar also shaped my thinking and mannerism. It’s a culture that cuts through societal tiers and is far more egalitarian. This has helped me to be more open and accessible to my colleagues and staff.

What motto do you live by?
I follow my heart. I jump into things because I feel I should, not thinking much about the consequences. As a judge, I think it is essential that one should have the ability to stand up and protect the Constitution and the law at all times.

Perhaps the most important quality of a judge is courage – the ability to decide without fear. So, the motto is to do right to all manner of people without fear or favour.

Looking back what kind of impact do you think you have had?
Empowerment of young women lawyers comes to mind. If I look back at the law firm where we encouraged diversity that helped many young women become litigators. Some of them now hold top positions in international organizations and statutory regulators dealing with law and development. As I look back, all we did was to provide workspace and a sense of security to women, which not only empowered them but made them flourish.

The other area was that of public interest litigation. The law firm allocated time and money to do pro bono public interest cases in the area of environmental law and human rights. This had an impact on many young lawyers and perhaps was the beginning of public environmental interest litigation in the country. Now I see a lot more public interest lawyers in the sector.

Teaching law for over 20 years was the most satisfying. Many of my students are now judges or lawyers, doing really well and making a difference. This brought a human face to our law firm. It was essential to show that law and lawyers are not all about money but can effectively contribute towards social change.

As a judge, I took interest in the areas of human rights, dignity rights, disability rights, environment, and climate change. The jurisprudence coming out of Pakistan on these subjects will have a far-reaching effect.

How have you helped change the role for women in the criminal justice sector?
I already talked about empowering young women lawyers in becoming litigators. Later as a Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court, I appointed the first female judge as the head of the judicial academy. I also appointed female District and Session Judges to head various District Courts in the Province. Established a gender-sensitive transfer policy to keep in mind family issues, education of the children and other specific issues that concerned the female judges.

Introduced the Diversity Policy which ensured that every administrative committee must have a female judge as a member and work together with a male judge. That was not the case earlier. At that time, male judges dominated the committees and the governance of the District Courts. Established a Sexual Harassment Committee and appointed both the female judges at the High Court at the time namely Justice Ayesha Malik and Justice Aliya Neelum as members. Any female judge that felt threatened could raise her concerns before the said committee.

We established the Gender-Based Violence Courts (GBV) with the support of the Asian Development Bank. The logic was that a traditional court atmosphere does not encourage female victims to come forward. The court being full of men and male lawyers asking inappropriate or demeaning questions from female victims of sexual abuse wasn’t conducive. We changed that and provided a special court to deal with these issues. We also developed Standard Operating Procedures for such a court and ensured that a victim doesn’t have to sit in the actual courtroom but can sit in an adjacent room and be video-linked into the court, so that she can be at ease and avoid the public gaze. This helped the conviction rates go up. Now we are taking it these GBV courts countrywide.

We also created the first Child Court. The purpose was to ensure that a case involving a child does not get stuck in the system but is dealt with swiftly to prevent the child from suffering at the hands of the courts. The child court allows the child to enter a friendly space. I believe that these changes have encouraged women to bring matters to court, to have more access to justice. 51% of our population are women. So where are they? I mean, what are we doing by not really including them. It bothers me, actually. So, I tried and wish that we get more female judges in our courts.

Justice Shah, how have you dealt with the naysayers?
I deal with them in two different ways. I always say: “Talk to the female judges. Talk to female lawyers. Understand their issues.” Most men in our justice system don't engage. Maybe it's cultural, perhaps they're shy, but I always encourage them to have a conversation.

I also think one has to lead by example. In Punjab, by putting a woman in charge of the judicial academy sent a strong message to the naysayers. We have wonderful example of female judges, and people know that they can deliver. We need to create a system that makes them see women perform. It’s important to give female judges ownership.

What is your attitude when you are faced with a challenge?
Challenges need to be taken head-on. One needs to rise to the challenge. There is no other way. It is not good to push issues under the carpet and avoid challenges. When issues arise, they need to be understood and addressed.

What steps have you taken within the criminal justice sector to address the gender dimension?
We realized that concept of Gender was totally misunderstood. Many thought that gender was something biological. We thought that it was essential that a judge who sits and dispenses justice must understand the meaning of gender. It was sine qua non for effective justice system. I am quite sure that now, after an extensive training, the judges in Punjab have a good handle on gender. I believe a judge is a trendsetter and can make a difference. At the Supreme Court now, we want to work on gender issues nationwide. We have the platform; we want to do more.

Can you tell us about a time when you have been involved with a trafficking in persons case?
Cases might have not been brought forward as trafficking cases per se. But we had a lot of cases regarding organ (kidney) transplant. People selling their kidneys, and we did try to stop that. We also looked at climate refugees, who are victims of displacement due to adverse weather. As a result, we have seen cases of forced marriages, forced prostitution and so on. We also see cases that involve the movement of drugs. Where women are unknowingly carrying them for their husbands or male family members and end up in prison.

Looking ahead, what more needs to change in Pakistan’s criminal justice system?
I have one agenda: to reduce the shelf life of a case in the court system. It needs to be defined, and it must not be more than six months. That would revolutionise our country. Accountability with transparency, openness, efficiency and in accordance with law. Currently, the time frame for a normal case from start to end varies from 5 to 20 years, if not a lifetime. This deprives the society of justice. The solution is not complicated. We need technology, case management techniques, energetic judges, more organization, strict discipline and a bar that understands our vision. People don't come to courts because they think that it will take them a lifetime to receive justice. All this needs to change. One day Inshallah!!


Justice Shah was elevated to the bench at the Lahore High Court in 2009 and after serving as the Chief Justice of the Lahore High Court for almost two years was elevated to the Supreme Court of Pakistan in early 2018. For a detailed biography please click here.