Justice for Bangladesh’s poorest communities

The Village Court was able to resolve the case of Pabitra Bala, 65, in twelve days. Photo: UNDP Bangladesh

“If it wasn’t for the Village Court, it would not have been possible to recover my assets through any other means,” said Pabitra Bala, a 65-year-old widow from central Bangladesh.

With five children, including a son Nikhil who is disabled, Ms Bala’s earnings amount to around US$10 a month. Her two older sons try to earn some additional income by fishing and ferrying passengers on cycle rickshaws.

Just over a year ago, Ms Bala’s neighbor Subrata Mandol stole the family’s fishing net, bicycle and rickshaw vans. Nikhil watched helplessly, unable to stop the theft on account of his disability. With these items, the family also lost their livelihoods.

As Subrata is influential in the community, Pabitra felt she would get no recourse from reporting the incident to the police and pursuing the formal justice system. However, luckily for her, the Bangladesh Government’s Village Courts scheme was able to resolve the case in twelve days and openly declare its decision, instructing Subrata to pay BDT 16,000 (around US$200) to Pabitra Bala.

The Activating Village Courts project, has been providing access to justice to over seven million people mainly in rural areas, since its inception seven years ago. The project is being implemented in partnership between United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the European Union (EU) and the Government of Bangladesh.

The EU finances the project with close to 40 million Euros. The Government of Bangladesh is providing additional US$ 5 million to ensure access to justice to the most vulnerable and poor.

The new scaled-up phase of the project started this year with a goal of bringing improved access to legal services to over 21 million people living in poor and rural areas across Bangladesh.

In the first six years of the project, 69,200 disputes have been successfully resolved out of 87,200 reported to the Village Courts.

Most importantly, each case was resolved, on average, within 28 days, compared to the three years it takes, on average, to resolve petty cases of both civil and criminal nature in the formal justice system. In the past, due to the long procedures, people would usually give up and never have their cases resolved. Now, the shorter process brings them hope.

"The European Union continues its commitment to strengthen social justice and, in partnership with UNDP and Government of Bangladesh, ensures that more people, especially the poor women and children, have access to justice and have the possibility to find a solution to their disputes and conflicts at community level," said Mr. Mario Ronconi, Head of Cooperation of the European Union Delegation to Bangladesh.
Pabitra used the compensation to buy the items she and her family had lost. She bought a fishing net and a bicycle, as well as two rickshaw vans – one for each of her two sons.

“Village Courts is one of the services that can improve lives, bringing peace and harmony in the rural areas of Bangladesh,” said Mr. Abdul Malek, Secretary, Local Government Division, Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives.