Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, is cradled by lofty mountains and sits at the confluence of the Jhelum and Neelum rivers. A popular tourist destination, this busy city has always been a blend of cultures and peoples, and bustled with the activity of any major city. In October 2005, however, Muzaffarabad and its surrounding cities felt the wrath of an earthquake that hit 7.6 on the Richter Scale. The city was devastated. The human impact of the earthquake was immense and over 70,000 people perished. The international community quickly resolved to send aid and assistance.
Alongside the mass loss of human life came the collapse of almost all of Muzaffarabad’s civic buildings, including its courts. In the midst of a human catastrophe, the structural damage attracts less attention, but its impact is still significant.
Hearing of the devastation, Baroness Butler-Sloss, Lord Justice Thorpe and Edward Nugee QC resolved that the British legal community had to reach out to their counterparts in Muzaffarabad. Baroness Butler-Sloss had an additional, personal motive: in 2004, she led a delegation of UK judges, including Thorpe LJ, to Islamabad to discuss, with their Pakistani counterparts, the cross jurisdiction issues of child abduction and forced marriages. She then went on to Muzaffarabad, where she visited the courts. For her, there was no option other than to help, and to “show some solidarity and support for judges and lawyers in Jammu and Kashmir”.
The Muzaffarabad Courthouse Appeal was launched earlier this year and aims to raise £50,000 to help not only with the physical reconstruction, but also the re-stocking of the courts including the technology, administration and legal paraphernalia destroyed in the earthquake.
The appeal has the backing of the great and the good of the legal community. The list of patrons includes the Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, the Master of the Rolls Sir Anthony Clarke, the Senior Law Lord Lord Phillips and Lords Mance and Neuberger.
The British legal community’s committed response to helping in Muzaffarabad was praised by the Pakistan High Commissioner, Wajid Shamsul Hasan, who hoped that the efforts would help Muzafarrabad to overcome the logistical difficulties faced by the courts in the performance of their duties. At present, many courts still sit in tents, and whilst the legal process continues, it is does so under considerable strain.
To date, £17,000 has been raised, assisted by a charity musical evening which was held at the Pakistan High Commission on 19 November. This is a promising start, but the appeal hopes to raise enough to meet its target.
Although a small project, responding to a crisis thousands of miles away, the determination of the legal community in the UK shows that there is a desire to help those in the same profession and support the legal process, wherever it is taking place.
Fatim Kurji is a barrister at No 5 Chambers. If you would like to contribute to the Muzafarrabad Courthouse Appeal, please make cheques payable to “Muzaffarabad Earthquake Appeal” and send to Baroness Butler-Sloss at the House of Lords, London, SW1A 0PW.