Through village courts,
justice for all in 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. Angry at Jahanara, her neighbour assaulted her and injured her eye, which then 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. As reported by The Daily Star, with 2.3 million cases pending in the courts, and a 10- to 15-year backlog, the wait for justice can be a long one.
- Since 2010, nearly 85,500 cases have been reported to village courts across Bangladesh. About 78 percent of them have been resolved.
- Nearly 70 percent of village court beneficiaries – both petitioners and respondents – expressed satisfaction with their experience.
- An average of 28 days is required for the resolution of a case, compared to five years in the traditional courts system.
But Jahanara escaped the circuitous and lengthy legal proceedings by filing her case in the village court.
Through an initiative adopted by the Bangladesh government with support from the United Nations Development Programme and funding from the EU, village courts have reduced the time, expense 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 her neighbour and headed by an elected representative, found her neighbour 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.
Since the village courts opened, nearly 85,500 cases like that of Jahanara have been reported to village courts in 351 municipalities across the country. About 78 percent of these have been resolved. Importantly 32 percent of the cases involved women, and this number is growing annually. In total this hmeans that over 139,000 people, particularly those from vulnerable communities, have had direct access to localised justice.
According to an evaluation of the courts, nearly 70 percent of village court beneficiaries – both petitioners and respondents – expressed satisfaction with their experience.
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.
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 disadvantaged and marginalized segments of society, but also reducing the huge case backlog in the higher courts.
Cases are heard locally, reducing or even completely eliminating travel costs and work absences for participants. And 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 the higher courts cannot attain.
An average of 28 days is required for the resolution of a case, compared to five years in the formal legal sector. In most instances, the petitioner pays a court fee of only TK 2 (US $0.025) for criminal cases and Tk 4 ($0.05) for civil cases.
Jahanara said her experience was fair, affordable, conveniently located and timely.
“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,” she said.
The success of the first phase of the project has led the Government of Bangladesh, EU and UNDP to scale up the programme to a new phase for January 2016 through 2019. During Phase II, the Ministry's Local Government Division will activate Village Courts in 1,000 village groups, benefiting 20 million rural peoples.