In Bangladesh, the court system is mostly urban-centric. Therefore, delivery of justice in rural disputes has been rare for a long time. However, to address the serious need of protecting the majority of rural population through law, a separate court system had been introduced in 2006. The legislation introducing such a unique system was titled the Village Court Act, 2006. It established courts for rural areas, sitting in the local government institutions named 'unions', working independently from both the Ministry of Law and Parliamentary Affairs and the national judiciary.
The judge panel of a village court consists of the Union Parishad Chairman as the head and four other members; of whom two must be Union Parishad Members. Hence it is safe to deduce that village court carries out duties related to the executive of Bangladesh being regulated through a specific local government body. This court can take cognizance of certain specific civil and criminal cases as determined under the schedule of the Village Court Act, 2006. Main functions of village courts of Bangladesh therefore include: filing of a case, summoning, witness examining, oath-taking under Oaths Act, 1873, giving written judgment and imposing fine up to 75 thousand taka as penalty.
As Unions are the functioning core of these village courts, changes in structure of this local government body are bound to bring changes in affairs of village courts. Such an instance has been brought forward through a groundbreaking amendment in the legislation regulating the 'unions', namely the Local Government (Union Parishad) Act, 2009. Under section 19A of this Act, a provision newly added in 2015, to become a UP Chairman, candidates now have to be nominated by political parties or have to compete as independent candidates.
When we picture a judge sitting in his court, we cannot but consider such a person to be dedicated toward ensuring true justice. Because the post of a judge is the most impartial position ever created. Can an executive officer with a political agenda ever be a nearly suitable option for carrying out such tasks of a judge? The answer would obviously be negative.
The Constitution of the Peoples' Republic of Bangladesh clearly provides that every accused person shall have the right to a speedy and public trial by an independent and impartial Court (article 35). Moreover, executive organs of the State must be separate from the judiciary in order to ensure such independence and impartiality (article 22). These provisions are being violated seriously by the existing law relating to village courts. Not only are the judicial acts deciding fate of millions are being carried out by executive post holders, but also their political identity is now going to get utmost preference under the latest addition of section 19A in Local Government (Union Parishad) Act, 2009. In the current era, when political rivalries threaten peace so often and corruption among politicians run rampant, we can hardly expect these political representatives to be impartial in delivering court judgment. Such situation is also opposed to the promise of removing the disparity between the urban and rural areas (article 16) in the Constitution. Unlike the courts situated in urban areas, which are equipped with judges trained in the skill of delivering judgment, villagers of Bangladesh are bound to accept decisions delivered by elected executive officers of Union Parishads.
The newly surfaced dilemma due to the change brought in Union Parishad election system definitely appears to be opposing the spirit of our Constitution. The possible consequences of allowing politically elected leaders to lead a court room cannot be expected to uphold the sanctity of rule of law or ensure independence of judiciary.
Preeti Sikder, Lecturer of Law, University of Asia Pacific