One in three persons expresses limited or no chance of getting justice in Bangladesh. Justice services are located in the district capital to which people must travel (1-4 hours is common). It is usual for cases to take 2-5 years to finish (longer in land disputes) with over 20 visits for the parties (cases are constantly adjourned, or the court has run out of time to hear the matter). The conservative cost of a case (travel, court fees, lawyers’ fees - without costing in the loss of income) is between $500-$5,000 where average monthly wages are $50-$150.
The courts are congested with case backlogs in all courts, so delay is built in. The prisons are overcrowded and 84% prisoners are on remand, awaiting trial. Police complain that 80% of cases are simple or minor in nature and distract resources from investigating serious and complex crime. Every complaint made must go to court. There are no mechanisms for filtering cases out and away from the criminal justice system. Public confidence in the ‘formal’ justice system is low - 87% people seek justice local to where they live.
In 2006, the Government of Bangladesh passed the Village Court Act empowering Union Parishads (the lowest administrative unit in the country, at the village level) to resolve a range of simple criminal offences (assault, theft etc.) and civil disputes (neighbor disputes, trespass etc), but due to lack of a champion in government at the time, these village courts existed in name only.
Towards a Solution
In 2009, Government of Bangladesh took up the challenge of Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh (AVCB) and sought out the support of partners in the EU, UNDP and civil society.
The objectives were to apply the simple legislative framework of the Act to formalize a mediated practice that has been part of Bangladesh culture since time immemorial (shalish) and empower the poor local people, especially the women, to seek remedies for the small injustices that made life miserable locally and restore social harmony in the village. At the same time, help the local authorities to be more responsive to local justice needs by providing appropriate legal services in the form of well-functioning village courts.
The project adopted a Human Right Based Approach keeping people front and centre and holding the Village Court and those who service it to account. It looked to address both supply and demand sides by enlisting partnerships with the local authorities and civil society groups active in the provision of legal services.
To-date, around a quarter of the total Unions (1,078 Unions out of 4,571) of the country have activated Village Courts providing a lawful remedy accessible to 21 million people. The average distance is 3 kilometres, cases seldom last longer than 28 days or take more than two visits. Monthly incomes are the same ($50-$150) but the costs of a case are a fraction of the formal courts (between $1-$2.50).
The costs of establishing a Village Court to Government are low, while the social and economic benefits to the communities they serve are significant:
- crime is perceived by police to lessen in the community ‘nipped in the bud’ by the Village Courts;
- cases are diverted away from the criminal justice system (reducing pressure on the courts and numbers of people entering prison);
- local administrators see improvements in social harmony (as neighbours formerly at loggerheads are able to settle their dispute and laugh about it, rather than spend years fighting each other through the district courts);
- women feel they will get a fair hearing in a safe environment (36% complainants are women);
- complainants obtain a quick and generally positive outcome (80% cases result in compensation/settlements agreed on and paid).
In an often fast changing political landscape, the Village Courts have proved resilient. Three factors contribute towards this success:
- the parties elect the mediation panel (two each) and the Chairman is the locally elected representative;
- everything takes place in open court for all to see – the settlement is also agreed between the parties in open court;
- Government started adopting the AVCB project approach for its sustainable continuation and scaling up across the country. Initiated revenue allocation in that front being fully motivated with the outcome and citizen’s satisfaction;
- Government started deploying dedicated staff, Assistant Accountant-cum-Computer Operator (AACO) in each UP helping people initiate their complaints, oversees collection of compensation and administers the court and keeps the registers.
The courts, police and Government recognize the value of the Village Courts in meeting hitherto unmet needs of the rural poor. Locally elected officials have an instrument to dispense social justice and increase their own prestige within their constituencies. The Justice Gap is growing in many countries. There is an opportunity with the Bangladesh Village Courts to reverse that direction.
|Name: Sarder M. Asaduzzaman Title: Senior Project Manager, Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh Phase II Project, UNDP|
|Local Government Division (LGD) of the Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives of the Government of Bangladesh are implementing this project. Besides this Ministry of Law, Justice and Parliamentary Affairs, Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of Women and Children Affairs, Ministry of Social Services, Ministry of Finance|
URL of the practice
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