Maintaining due process in rural areas
Rina Begum lives in Madaripur and lives in a hut on her father’s land with daughter Sania, who works as cleaner and earns approximately Tk2,000 each month. Planning to repair her tiny hut, Rina decided to sell the trees grown on her father’s land.
However, her relatives claimed ownership of those trees, and threatened Rina. She received no help from her neighbours, and filed a case at the Sahebrampur UP. Following village court procedures, the panel within three weeks gave the decision in favour of Rina.
Later, Rina sold those trees for Tk7,500, and repaired her hut. Being highly satisfied, she said: “Village court relieved my pain, and saved me during tough times. I went to each doorstep of the local elites, they didn’t help. Village court rescued me within three weeks. I am extremely happy.”
Like Rina, several other destitute, poor, and vulnerable women are obtaining justice across the country through village courts -- an inclusive, socially accepted, and affordable dispute resolution mechanism. Rina now advocates for social justice for other abandoned women who need justice.
Social development cannot be attained in the absence of peace and security, or in the absence of respect for all human rights and fundamental freedoms. The UN has made strong calls with the international community to take practical steps to break down the barriers of inequality by doing more to empower individuals by providing adequate social protection and ensuring their voices are heard.
Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political, and social rights, and opportunities. Social justice is a necessity for attaining peace and development in a society. Social justice is an underlying principle for peaceful and prosperous coexistence within and among nations.
We uphold the principles of social justice when we promote gender equality, or the rights of all ethnicities. We advance social justice when we remove barriers that people face because of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, culture, or disability. It is not easy unless compatible policy, practice, and frameworks are developed by the state parties.
The growth trend in Bangladesh is praiseworthy. At the same time, there is an alarming increase in inequality. Access to justice is one of several key areas where deeper attention needs to be paid for sustaining our economic growth with equality. The UN recognizes that broad-based growth is necessary to sustain development and social justice.
Restorative justice has potential as a tool for advancing social justice for women and children who suffer. The village court system in Bangladesh is an effective example of the restorative form of justice, which helps narrow the gap between those who have access and those who do not.
The village court is an inclusive justice method that allows women’s increased participation in both the justice-seeking and delivery processes, and thus increases social cohesion. It is an institutional innovation that has big potential to be replicated globally.
Article 27 of the constitution states: “All citizens are equal before law and are entitled to equal protection of law.” One study mentions that four out of five adults in Bangladesh faced one or more legal problems in the past four years. Another study cites that one in every six households has on-going disputes, and about two-thirds of disputes do not enter the formal court process and instead, to secure justice, they are either settled at the local level, through informal settlement by local leaders or a village court, or they remain unsettled.
Village courts employ an easily understood and simple procedure based largely on the shalish, but modified to address some of the inequalities in the traditional form. The village court is made up of a panel of five members, normally the UP Chair, and four nominated panel members. Two panel members (one of whom must be a member of the UP) are nominated by each party to the dispute.
Village courts have no power to impose punishment or imprisonment, but can order restitution/compensation. Decisions at the end of an arbitration are legally binding and enforceable, and may only be appealed to the district courts if the panel is split. They are exempt from normal rules and procedures, and can be best described as a quasi-judicial local dispute resolution mechanism. As such, they have no official link to the judiciary.
The government of Bangladesh has taken keen interest to activate this social justice mechanism with the financial and technical assistance of the EU and UNDP. In the current phase (2016 – 2019), so far as of December 2018, a total of 79,568 cases have been reported to the village courts, 61,450 resolved, and 56,440 decisions/verdicts enforced. Taka 58.98 crore has been recovered as compensation and given to the victims.
However, this social justice system bears several limitations due to very limited human resources, technical know-how, and a low level of awareness. There is a strong demand to increase the pecuniary jurisdiction of village courts from its current ceiling of Taka 75,000. While barring the legal representation is a good thing for village courts to dispense the justice quickly, also allowing police to investigate for certain cases make village courts weaker. Specific resource allocation is essential in the annual budget for keeping the village court functional.
Despite the above limitations, a survey reports that the majority of people believe the village court has led to lower levels of fighting and quarreling. The main reasons for satisfaction revealed are inexpensive services, proximity to the users, fair decisions, and the fact that there is no need for a lawyer.
Given the circumstances and benefits, it is time to pay attention to maintaining proper and sustainable village courts across the country.
Sarder M Asaduzzaman works at an international development agency.