Two months ago, Shafiqul Alam, a businessman from Kishoreganj, filed a case with local government representatives, asking a village court to resolve a land dispute that he was involved in with his neighbour in the Mosua union of the district. Surprisingly, the verdict of Shafiqul's case was given within four weeks.
He says that they are quite happy with the process, since they did not have to face lengthy procedures in civil courts or spend money on lawyers. Not long ago, Shafiqul would likely have sought justice through a gram salish or panchayat, comprising of elderly members of the village. The salish or village panchayat has acted for many years as a traditional judicial mechanism, operating in the rural parts of Bangladesh. The controversial system has more often than not seen village elders, political leaders, and the local elite deliver verdicts that violate human rights and essentially resulted in the miscarriage of justice.
Now, a new initiative, adopted by the Bangladesh government with support from the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), is acting as a gram shalish buster, through the creation of village courts that are held to standards of jurisprudence and human rights, governed by Bangladeshi laws. What's more, village courts have significantly reduced the time, money and hassle associated with the district courts' system.
The Village Courts Act was promulgated in 2006 but could not be effectively administered at the union level. The UNDP's Activating Village Courts Project has been working to revive this initiative since 2009 with the Local Government Division of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives. With major financial assistance of the European Commission and the technical cooperation of UNDP the Local Government Division is implementing the project in 350 union parishads of 56 upazilas under 14 districts of six divisions.
Supreme Court lawyer Shahdeen Malik points out that there are checks and balances that prevent abuses of justice for either party that approaches a village court.
"If an accused refuses to comply with the decision of the village court, the latter can refer the matter to a certificate officer (UNO) or an assistant judge having jurisdiction to enforce the decision," he says.
At present, Bangladesh follows a two-tier system of courts, which consists of subordinate courts, functional at the districts and the Supreme Court that operates at the centre. Some legal experts are of the opinion that existing number of subordinate courts are not sufficient for handling the current volume of cases.
After the independence, to ensure equality and justice to the rural and marginalised people, the government enacted Village Courts Ordinance, 1976. The idea was to resolve disputes within a short span of time which also required poor litigants to spend a small amount of money to obtain justice. The ordinance had been shelved until its recent revival.
"Village Courts are accessible at union level, and a litigant needs only two takas to file a criminal case and four takas to file a civil case," says Sarder M Asaduzzaman of UNDP's Activating Village Courts Project. "The disputant parties can nominate judges, and an aggrieved person may get relief within one month from a village court," he adds, explaining why village courts could take a great deal of pressure of the formal court system.
The initiative, however, is still far from a mechanism to reduce the number of cases mounted at the courts and the government will have to take remarkable steps, says Malik.
"Village courts will help to reduce minor village disputes that are confined to the value of Tk 25,000,' he says. 'Moreover, it is an informal court system; so, I doubt it will help to reduce the 2.2 million cases lingering at the formal judicial courts. But no doubt it has potential."
Malik fears if the government does not boost the budget for the village courts, it will automatically stop functioning. The government has to have a minimum monthly budget of 10,000 taka for every village court. It should attribute a fee for the service providers in the village court to get the most out of the mechanism. Currently, he says, beginning from the village police to the UP chairman, each member related to the village court is rendering their service for free.
Legal experts believe that as much as this is an avenue to provide access to justice for the poor so it is needed to build capacity, knowledge gathering and skill development to run such responsible job in the rural level. It is a new platform for justice, so there might be problems in every sphere. While the initiative may ease the pressure on the formal judicial courts, without building capacity for the village court, transparency in the process will be difficult to ensure.
The story of rural justice system started with the enactment of the Bengal Village Self Government Act, 1919. The Act established union courts dealing with offences and disputes of relatively lower scale in the rural areas. Later, the Pakistan government, in order to deal with the minor civil and criminal disputes, replaced the act and enacted the new Conciliation Courts Ordinance, 1961. It was again replaced in the independent Bangladesh with Village Courts Ordinance, 1976.
Since then, however, the ordinance existed only in the paper and was not effectively practiced at the rural level. The ordinance was repealed by the enactment of the Village Courts Act, 2006. A village court comprises of union parishad (UP) chairman and four other members, to be nominated two members by each party amongst which one must be a UP member. Each member including the chairman has got one vote and decision is taken by a vote of majority. It is an inexpensive and short process where litigants can get decision in normal case within one month, which can be implemented within maximum six months.
"We are not very clear about the (village court) system as most of the villagers are uneducated," says Shafiqul Alam of Kishoreganj. "They need to be made aware about this new court system. Sometimes people mix up village court with the salish or panchayet." For the new courts to function effectively, he believes, the government should clarify to the villagers the difference between the village court and other forms of hearing.
Since the village court follows a similar model as salish, there is confusion among villagers about the difference between the two.
“The trial of the village court is to be held in open place and normally at the UP office, and the decision is to be declared in open court," says Asaduzzaman. "The Court must give its decree or decision in a prescribed form which has got an evidentiary value. The court has to record the substance of the statements of the petitioner and opposite party and their respective witnesses. All these processes are sufficient to ensure transparency and different from informal salish," he adds.
“It's an urban misconception to think that the local representatives are not eligible to do their job in the traditional justice system," says Malik. "There are at least one lakh salish taken place in the country. You cannot say all of them are corrupt." He however believes that if village courts are brought to effect, it may operate better with adequate budget and priority.