Justice for all

village court proceedings
Jahanara Begum's demand for compensation was rapidly dealt with through the village courts system. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh.

When Jahanara Begum’s sons stole mangoes from a neighbour’s garden, what should have been a petty incident of children’s mischief, escalated into a violent confrontation between Jahanara and her neighbour Babul Mia. Angry at Jahanara, Babul Mia assaulted her and injured her eye, for which she required expensive medical treatment.

Standing between Jahanara and the compensation she deserved were high costs, unscrupulous lawyers and touts, long waits in a labyrinth of government offices, expensive travel to distant district courts and complicated legal procedures beyond the understanding of most ordinary citizens. As a subsistence farmer, with a monthly income of less than $170 for her family of five, Jahanara could hardly afford the time and money required to hire a lawyer to take the case to the district court.

For the poor, minor medical treatment and surgeries are often considered ‘catastrophic health events’ because the costs can set a family back by a generation, result in the children being pulled out of school, and destroy coping capacity against future setbacks.

Highlights

  • Since 2010, more than 32,000 cases like that of Jahanara’s have been reported to village courts across Bangladesh. Almost 25,000 cases have been resolved.
  • Nearly 70 percent of village courts beneficiaries – both petitioners and respondents – expressed satisfaction with their experience.
  • An average of 28 days is required for the resolution of a case whereas in the traditional courts system the same case can take more than a decade to reach resolution.

As reported by The Daily Star with 2.3 million cases pending in the courts, and a ten to fifteen year backlog, the wait for justice can be a long one. And in Narayanpur village of Rajbari district, far from the capital and government offices, recourse to the law may simply be too far to reach.

Jahanara escaped the circuitous and lengthy legal proceedings and was able to file her case in the Village Court of her local Union Parishad (UP).

Village Courts, an initiative adopted by the Bangladesh government with support from the United Nations Development Programme and funding from the EU,have reduced the time, expenses and hassle that plaintiffs often associate with the conventional courts system.

The village court panel, composed of local community members nominated by both Jahanara and Babul Mia and headed by the UP chairman (an elected representative), found Babul Mia guilty and asked him to pay Jahanara’s medical costs and apologize. Despite several delays, the court was able to implement the decision within the stipulated 30 day period.

Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh Project supports the Local Government Division (LGD) of the Government of Bangladesh in setting up, activating and promoting village courts across the country.

Since 2010, more than 32,000 cases like that of Jahanara’s have been reported to village courts in 338 UPs across the country. Almost 25,000 cases have been resolved, of which approximately 2,000 were referred back from the district courts, thereby reducing the burden on the higher courts.

The UP chairman in Jahanara’s district said that, “sixteen cases were referred from the District Court, some came after two years of registering in the District Court. However, it took only three weeks to resolve these matters, although they had already spent Tk. 80,000-100,000 in the district.”

According to Evaluating Village Court Performance at Beneficiaries End, nearly 70 percent of village courts beneficiaries – both petitioners and respondents – expressed satisfaction with their experience. Even the respondents who had to pay compensation to the petitioner, realized that though they lost the case, they would have had to spend far more money and time, and face many bureaucratic hassles, had the case been at the district court.

Village courts have also been able to restore broken social ties, which underpin village life in tight-knit rural communities, and have created a sense of safety and security. A UNDP study on the evaluation of village courts from the beneficiaries’ perspective found that More than two-thirds of beneficiaries reported that social problems and petty crimes occur less frequently due to the presence of village courts in their community.

As the Honourable State Minister for Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives, Mr. Jahangir Kabir Nanok, noted, “The main aim of the court is to take a decision in a way so that it ensures coexistence and mutual understanding between the protestant and the complainant to avoid further clash or dispute.”

The project’s efforts have not gone unnoticed, attracting the attention of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who, at the inauguration of the Village Courts Conference in 2012 hosted by the project, called upon, “public representatives [to] make village courts operational.”

The Prime Minister’s endorsement generated widespread interest in this courts system and increased the sense of ownership from the national down to the local level. As the European Union Ambassador H.E. William Hanna said, “village courts are shaped by the communities in which they belong,” and the sense of pride and vested interest in these communities is the driving force behind their success.

By empowering citizens to resolve their disputes at the local level, in an affordable, transparent and efficient manner, the village courts system is not only increasing access to justice for the disadvantaged and marginalized segments of society, but also reducing the huge case backlog in the higher courts.

The benefits of village courts are manifold.

Not only are cases heard locally, reducing or even completely eliminating travel costs and absence from work for both the petitioner and the respondent, but given the grassroots nature of the courts, they are able to issue the summons, carry out the investigation, reach a decision and implement a verdict with a speed and efficiency that the cumbersome legal processes of the higher courts do not allow.

An average of 28 days is required for the resolution of a case and in most instances the petitioner pays only a Tk. 2 court fee for criminal cases and Tk. 4 for civil cases. In a country in which the wait for justice can be painfully slow and prohibitively expensive for society’s most vulnerable, village courts may be the way forward.

There are many examples of successful village courts or local justice systems around the world, but as the AVCB Project Manager Sarder M. Asaduzzaman points out, “Bangladesh is unique in that the Village Courts Act 2006 allows people’s participation in the decision-making process. There are no fixed village courts magistrates here. It’s a restorative form of justice system within the local government structure.”

Speaking of her experience, Jahanara said that, “I did not need to go to a distant place. I did not need too much money. I got a fair judgment. And it took a short time. Without the village courts, I would have had to spend money on lawyers, travel to the district headquarters and wait years for justice just for a few mangoes.”