Mritul Begum, 30, lives in Kendua, Madaripur. Her husband Ruhul Molla, 42, works as a day-labourer and earns a meagre Tk 5,000 a month. It is difficult to make ends meet so Mritul has invested in some cattle and poultry for some extra earnings.
Four years ago, her long-time neighbour Nitin Bepari, 62, persuaded her, after many requests, to loan him Tk 75,000, which he said he would repay in kind with 30 maunds (around 1 tonne) of grain on a yearly basis. But, he failed to make any such repayment in cash or in kind and kept delaying, up until he finally refused to pay her.
A distressed Mritul filed a case with the village court at Kendua union parishad (UP) and a judiciary panel was formed. In less than a month of sitting with panel members, both parties reached a compromise and Mritul successfully recovered Tk 60,000. Given that Nitin was very sick at that time, it was decided to write off the remaining Tk 15,000.
Thanks to the village court (gram adalat), Mritul managed to get out of a difficult situation with very little hassle in a short period of time. Like her, many others are availing the benefits of seeking justice through village courts. Being situated at the UP level, the village court becomes accessible to people living in remote areas for minor issues ranging in between quarrels, theft, riots, money lending, minor land disputes, etc. People can file a case for Tk 10 to 20 and can receive compensation of up to Tk 75,000.
A recent study by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) found that for every Tk 1 invested in a village court, it generates nearly double that amount (around Tk 1.78) in return. The returns multiply 18 times when cases are transferred from district courts.
Established through the Village Court Ordinance in 1976, the village court is seen as a unique mechanism of justice delivery, aimed at bringing the vast majority of the rural population in Bangladesh under the shelter of law. In the 2000s, the village court system was reformed through the Village Court Act 2006, making it a modern-day rural dispute resolution panel headed usually by the UP chairman and comprised of four other members, all nominated by the people. Its affordable and accessible nature makes it more preferable to higher courts, and its legal binding to the ordinance and act sets it apart from the community-based traditional dispute resolution mechanism commonly known as Shalish (or Shalishi Parishad) conducted by the village elders where irregularities, such as bribery, elite capture, gender bias, patriarchal norms, etc., are prevalent.
Recognising the potential of village courts in promoting justice for all, the government initiated a commendable effort to revamp this innovative court system, with technical and financial assistance from UNDP and European Commission. Currently in the second phase of the project (2016-2019), village courts in the project areas have received 1,12,428 cases as of May 2019, out of which 88,346 cases have been resolved.
To help the village court operate and implement its own rules and powers in the project areas, it is supported by a village court assistant (VCA), recruited through NGOs. Their role in raising awareness is crucial to the sustainability of the village court system as a whole. Lolita Dutta, 40, who works as a village court assistant at the Kendua UP, sees this as a calling for her to guide people in need.
“I was in the market one day when a woman approached me and thanked me for helping her. I did not recognise her but she said I had guided her to file a case with village court and since then she has been very happy. I don’t think I would get this feeling of fulfilment in any other job. I might be paid more in some other place, but nobody would remember me or think of me with such affection.”
Once the project ends, there is a plan to replace the VCAs with assistant-accountant-cum-computer-operators (AACOs), recruited by the government, who will have several duties at the UP in addition to attending to village court. This will be drastically different from the role of VCAs who help with building awareness and disseminating advice and information to make fair justice more accessible. Hence sustainability of the VC system will depend on how an AACOs will prioritise their village court duties.
The government would do better to improve on the role of the VCAs to provide psychosocial training to beneficiaries so they can retain their knowledge of legal rights longer and actively apply it to their daily lives. This is important because the study by BIGD found that beneficiaries, who go to the UP complex seeking legal advice, are unaware of the powers of the village court. For example, people do not always know that cases involving domestic violence or divorce do not fall within VC power, but can be settled in Shalish. This can create opportunities for middlemen to fool people into paying village court fees for cases that will ultimately be resolved through Shalish by the UP chairman. A training on self-assertiveness combined with legal knowledge might help users to deliberately seek out the services of village court, as opposed to Shalish where decisions may not always be fair.
The BIGD study identified some more challenges. Performance depends heavily on the local administration: if the UP chairman is proactive in their village court duty, the performance of that court is exemplary. Sadly, most chairmen and UP secretaries feel overworked and the absence of monetary payment for village court duties acts as a major disincentive. UP chairmen also conduct Shalish and may prefer Shalish to village courts because the former is characterised by compromise, consensus and deference to norms. But it must be said that the chairperson has a social status and political capital in terms of linkages with the police which is useful in reaching agreement and enforcement in dispute resolution.
Introducing soft-skills training or performance pays may improve the performance of UP chairman and also village courts; interventions on police in India has yielded promising results.
The Tk 75,000 monetary cap places a major limitation as well. A large number of disputes in the rural community have to do with land and these cannot always be resolved in village courts because land property is usually worth more than Tk 75,000. A clause should be included in the village court rules to raise the monetary cap at regular intervals in par with the rising value of property.
Some of the users complained that enforcement is weak in village courts because there is no jail time for perpetrators and UP chairmen fear for their security. Perpetrators often resort to various means (stalling, migration, etc.) to evade paying compensation, and the chairpersons sometimes try to avoid involvement in cases dealing with local politics because votes matter.
Streamlining the activities of the UP chairperson through a strong monitoring mechanism could be one possible solution for strengthening enforcement. There are Village Court Management Committees (VCMCs) at the district and upazila levels and Decentralised Monitoring, Inspection and Evaluation (DMIE) framework in place which needs to be activated so that DCs and UNOs can oversee VC affairs and ensure accountability and proper enforcement.
Documentation in village court follows a paper-based system where several forms have to be filled out and preserved; this hampers efficiency. If the Union Parishad does hire a computer operator, one priority would be to computerise this system. The recently established Union Digital Centres (UDCs) could be used to record soft copies of cases. Thinking of the future, village courts may eventually have to deal with a whole new array of minor disputes related to personal authentication, financial address information, payment settlements, and other technology-based woes. The village court system needs to be tech-savvy just to be prepared for these kinds of issues should they arise.
So far, this partnership by the government with an international development agency (i.e. UNDP) and national NGOs has benefitted in strengthening the village court system. Once the project ends, the government, namely the local government division (LGD), will take full charge of running the village courts. Question is, whether the achievement of this partnership will be sustainable under the sole leadership of the government.
Maria Matin is a Research Associate at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University.