Village Courts could bring justice to the doorstep of the Odia common man
The strength of a democracy is measured by the ease with which its citizens can access justice. We have inherited a colonial era justice system that is having to adapt to changing times. The cost of fighting cases in courts are expensive for the common man. Courts situated in cities are not easily accessible for villagers . The elderly and physically disabled find it especially difficult to visit courts. Complex legal procedures and use of legal English makes seeking justice a huge challenge for the Odia villager. The average villager ultimately signs on the petition, often not sure of what he is signing.
The government of India in an attempt to make justice more accessible to the common man passed the Village Court Act in 2008 in parliament. The act planned for village courts in all village panchayat headquarters. This would make physical access to justice easy for all villagers. The courts are to be headed by special judges appointed by the state government in consultation with the high court. The courts deal with both criminal and civil matters. The cost of all civil cases are fixed at 100 rupees, making justice affordable to the common man. The legal procedures and evidence are simplified compared to a usual court to make it easy for the common man to understand.
This act has been praised as a landmark in bringing justice closer to the reach of the underprivileged villagers of the state. Good intentions have unfortunately not translated to good action on the ground. Odisha was one of the first states to set up village courts. Unfortunately our state lost interest in the proper running of these courts. While the Odisha High Court in 2010 proposed setting up of 30 village courts, only 16 are actually functioning. Village courts emphasise on settling disputes by conciliation. Yet the courts in Odisha lack conciliators. The courts lack adequate physical support like buildings and computers as per several mass media reports.
The Supreme court expressed concern at the delay of setting up village courts in Odisha in January . To make matters worse , the government lawyer did not even present the state government stand on the matter in Supreme Court. Saddened by Odisha lack of concern , the Supreme court fined our state a sum of one lakh of rupees. Odisha a predominantly rural state with large parts of the population living in geographically remote areas desperately needs village courts. With the average income of Odias in the bottom class of India, the common man badly needs affordable legal remedies.
A state government that is serious in implementing village courts will win the hearts of lakhs of underprivileged odia people who find access to justice difficult. The administration and legal community together should work to popularize the existing village courts , so that more people may benefit from them. Odisha administration, police, the judicial community and lawyers together can transform Odisha village courts into temples of justice, that will be the pride of India.
By Dr Siddhartha Sahu