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Judicial committees need more teeth

Judicial committees need more teeth

Access to justice is one of the key challenges facing Nepal’s judicial system. 

Factors like a low level of awareness, lack of legal literacy and inherent social and structural systems have made justice inaccessible for a large section of the society, women and members of disadvantaged communities in particular.

For decades, the formal justice system of Nepal included the Supreme Court at the top, and appellate and district courts at the middle and lower rungs. A bureaucratic, formal and costly justice system meant that a large section of the public felt intimidated and scared to approach it, compelling them to suffer injustice in silence.

In order to overcome these impediments, the state did introduce the system of community mediation and justice administration through quasi-judicial bodies. But these bodies have neither been formally institutionalized nor has the public been sensitized about the kinds of services they are supposed to provide. Perhaps to address this gap, the Constitution of Nepal 2015 envisaged separate judicial committees under the local level to work as primary vehicles for a community-based justice-dispensation system. 

Legal provisions

Article 217 (1) of the Constitution of Nepal 2015 provides for a three-member judicial committee in each of the 753 local levels with the mandate to adjudicate, arbitrate and refer cases for mediation at the local level. Article 217 (2) stipulates election of other two members of the committee at village and municipal assemblies. The judicial committees are under deputy mayors in municipalities and vice-chairpersons in rural municipalities.

The Constitution has also provided for mandatory election of male and female as either mayor/chairperson or deputy mayor/vice-chairperson, resulting in the election of women deputy mayors and vice-chairpersons in over 90 percent of 753 local levels. Apparently, these committees are overwhelmingly led by elected representatives, who are women.

Clause 47 (1) of the Local Government Operation Act (LGOA) 2017 elaborates on functional and procedural aspects of the judicial committees, “empowering them to settle disputes related to 13 specific matters.”

Per Clause 47 (2) of LGOA, judicial committees have the right to settle disputes through mediation in 11 other matters. The disputants can directly register cases at the court under Clause 47 (2); they can also move the district court in case of dissatisfaction with the committee’s decisions.

In case of adjudication and arbitration, the committee regards the opinion of the majority as its decision. In the case of mediation, it keeps a roster of mediators and refers the parties to mediation centers at the ward level. 

Challenges aplenty

Since the promulgation of the Constitution of Nepal 2015, local level elections have taken place twice. Elected representatives have come and gone, but the judicial committees’ challenges remain as they are. Some of the problems facing these bodies include lack of institutional mechanisms, insufficient clarity on jurisdictions, lack of procedural clarity, expertise and human resources, administrative capacity and institutional capacity to implement decisions.

Nepal Law Society (NLS) and Rural Development Foundation (RDF) have been conducting different activities like organizing programs to support the functioning of judicial committees. They provided support to the Ministry of Federal Affairs and General Administration in drafting LGOA, apart from conducting a pilot study on the performance of the committees and conducting training sessions for the committees’ functionaries on due process, facilitation between committees and concerned district courts, capacity building through orientations and compiling suggestions from all local level leaders regarding necessary policy/legal reforms. 

NLS has identified a number of challenges facing these committees. They include lack of understanding on distinctive provisions in Clauses 46-53 of the Local Governance Operation Act; lack of awareness on gender, inclusion and legal education; failure on the part of judicial committees to fulfill due processes leading to overturning of their decisions by district courts and lack of mediation skills and insufficient human and physical/financial resources. 

Other challenges include the lack of coordination between judicial committees and the local level in the execution of decisions; domination of judicial committees by mayors/chairpersons; lack of awareness among target groups about the significance of these committees; lack of easy access to the committees among target groups due to lack of awareness or feeling of intimidation; lack of local civil society organizations that can facilitate the target groups’ access to justice and absence of a network connecting these committees for their collective strengthening and dearth of friendly laws.

The author is Executive Director of Nepal Law Society

This article is part 1 of a two-part series