Justice for Poor Through Village Courts
Ensuring access to justice is the key to ensure good governance and eventual poverty reduction. In this context, the formal justice system in Bangladesh is under tremendous pressure with huge caseload and experiencing inadequacy of human resources and necessary logistics to dispose off the pending cases. Consequently, the case backlogs add up further to the existing piles of disputes and presently the number stands about two millions. It implicates a negative impact on the lives of rural poor and vulnerable groups who cannot afford the expenses of cases and lacks clear understanding of how to obtain justice in the formal courts, while a significant parts of those case backlogs could easily be resolved through the local level justice system.
In this backdrop, the Local Government Division (LGD), Ministry of Local Government, Rural Development and Cooperatives (MoGRDC) has initiated a 5-years long (2009-2013) project 'Activating Village Courts Project in Bangladesh' with the partnership of European Commission (EC) and UNDP Bangladesh.
The project is supporting to strengthening the local justice system through activating Village Courts in selected 500 Union Parishads (UP) in the country. Union Parishad is the lowest tier of local government system in Bangladesh. The project is also undertaking several interventions to enhance capacity of the Village Courts (VC) members, elected representatives, community members and other relevant officials in a bid to run the village courts smoothly.
Village Courts were introduced in 1976 aiming to create an opportunity to resolve the disputes at the community level to the door steps of poor people without any hassle and at very nominal cost. Putting the importance to the services of village courts the Government of Bangladesh upgraded the 'Village Courts Ordinance 1976' with the ‘Village Courts Act 2006’. Theoretically, the Village Courts are statutory courts and are composed of local government (Union Parishad) representatives (as community leaders) and members nominated by disputant parties.
The court is composed with five juries headed by the UP Chairman. Apart from the Chairman, other four members are nominated by the two parties- one from the local community and the other must be a local elected UP member. The underlying argument lies, the disputant parties are able to discuss their problems without any hesitation and can reach to an amicable and sustainable decision and restore the broken relationships. Village courts decisions are equally valued to those of any other formal higher courts of the country. However, village courts can deal both the cases of criminal and civil nature with the ambit of Tk. 25,000.00.
Since the salient efforts of activating the village courts takes place for the first time formally in Bangladesh in selected 500 union parishads on pilot basis, active involvement of the stakeholders and community members with enhanced awareness on the justice system are crucial to succeed the efforts. Amongst other activities, courtyard meeting approached as very effective tool to boost mass awareness on village courts.
Since time immemorial, 'Shalish' (mediation) has traditionally been approached as an active tool for resolving local conflicts in rural settings of Bangladesh. It is a practice of gathering village elites and concerned parties (disputants) for the resolution of local disputes. Sometimes, the chairman and members of the Union Parishad are also invited to sit through the proceedings of Shalish. However, shalish generally doesn’t have any recognized rules, regulations or particular size and structure; rather it just depends entirely on the local urges subject to nature and magnitude of the disputes. Therefore, the follow-up of shalish decision always remains at stake.
Following the Village Courts Act 2006, practice of constituting village courts has increased and the local elected representatives’ i.e. local government is much supportive and interested to activate village courts. Village Courts offer the justice services locally with very minimal cost and time. If the local disputes are resolved through village courts, it can lead establishing peace and unity at the locality. Similarly, the effective village courts can enhance restoring societal cohesion to fight against local issues including poverty reduction.