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Perception is Reality: Public Impressions of the Justice System in Bangladesh

Community education sessions like those organized by the Village Courts Project assist in improving public perception of the justice system.

Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done."

Gordon Hewart, 1st Viscount Hewart, PC

In Bangladesh, a country where the backlog of court cases waiting to be heard is estimated to be over two million and a single land case can take a decade to be resolved, there are plenty of objective indicators that the justice system is not meeting the needs of the vast majority of Bangladeshis. While quantitative data like these indicators is helpful in measuring the success of justice sector institutions, it does not provide any clear path towards lessening citizens’ distrust of or dissatisfaction with the justice system.

A recent Situational Analysis study conducted by the UNDP’s Access to Justice (A2J) project combined quantitative and qualitative methods to measure the satisfaction level of citizens with the justice system in Bangladesh. By using both subjective and objective indicators, the A2J Analysis assists in identifying the symptoms of subjective dissatisfaction that, when addressed, could contribute to resolving some of the systemic issues currently plaguing the justice sector in Bangladesh.

Perception surveys, aimed at discovering opinions rather than facts, are often used in market research to measure customer satisfaction and brand loyalty. The qualitative data gathered through a perception survey might include things like whether the customer feels the company is easy to do business with, whether they would recommend it to family or friends, or whether its products are good quality. Perception surveys can help a company determine how customers feelabout the product in a way that quantitative data, like sales figures, cannot.

A properly functioning justice system is service-oriented, with an open and transparent court system that is accessible to all, and a law enforcement sector that serves the community as a whole independent of sectional interests or undue influence of the prevailing power. Public trust and confidence in the justice system is fundamental to developing respect for the rule of law within a given society and ensuring that a justice system has the legitimacy to operate effectively. While measurements of the cost and timeliness of the court process are good indicators of its accessibility, gathering information about the underlying concerns fueling dissatisfaction with the justice system can help identify the sometimes-simple changes that can be implemented to address these concerns.

The A2J Situational Analysis measured both more easily quantifiable data, such as the distance and cost of travelling to courts and police stations from the respondents’ residences, and less tangible data, such as public trust in the police and court system and perceptions of the independence of the judiciary.  

The study spanned the entire justice system, and canvassed the perceptions of 4,758 respondents from a range of societal groups and geographical regions all over Bangladesh. The study used both a general household survey of all citizens, and a more specific survey specifically geared at those who have used or come into contact with the informal and formal justice systems in Bangladesh.

The preliminary findings of the survey, both qualitative and quantitative, are interesting and indicate several sources of concern with the justice system:

Accessibility:

· More than half of the respondents reported that the closest District Court to them was more than 15 km away (in both rural areas (55%) and urban areas (57%))

· Travel to the District Court would take 1 to 2 hours of travel time for 41% of respondents and 45 minutes to 1 hour for a further 31%

Formal Court Processes:

· The vast majority of respondents would report a crime committed against them or seek help in resolving a civil dispute from an informal shalish (a customary quasi-judicial method of resolving disputes among community members), but only 8% would file a report with police if they were victims of a crime

· Of the 42% of respondents who sought assistance from the courts with a civil dispute, only 24% had seen their cases finalized – 41% of the cases resolved had taken over four years to resolve

· 34% of those who had civil disputes in court reported that their cases had been adjourned more than 30 times

· 30% of respondents reported having to attend court more than 15 times before they were able to give evidence

Informal Dispute Resolution:

· Of the 49% who had sought assistance from shalish services, 64% of their cases had been finalized and 67% of those had taken less than a year to complete;

· 91% of matters were adjourned no more than five times;

· 87% reported some degree of satisfaction with the resolution reached;

· Given the traditional nature of shalish proceedings, it is surprising that more women than men reported they had obtained the decision they hoped for out of the process (66% of women as opposed to 54% of men);

· Despite this, women were less likely to report that they would use shalishproceedings again in the future should they fall victim to crime (71% of women as opposed to 81% of men) – this could indicate that while the outcomes of the proceedings were largely positive, women may have found the proceedings themselves trying

Systemic Issues:

· Almost half the respondents surveyed (42%) perceived some degree of government interference in decision-making by the courts in Bangladesh;

· 52% of respondents believed the number of crimes against women had declined over the past three years, while 49% believed that disputes involving women in general had also declined;

· 51% believed that the number of crimes against children had decreased.

Taking into account the context of justice delivery in Bangladesh, the qualitative and quantitative results can often be linked, indicating steps that can be taken to address these concerns. For example, the data clearly indicates that quasi-formal judicial proceedings, now being expanded across the country through the UNDP’s Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh (AVCB) project, are a more efficient form of dispute resolution than the court process, and are more positively perceived by citizens in general. However, there are still certain issues with these quasi-formal proceedings that may be addressed. For example, despite approving of the outcome of their proceedings, less women than men reported that they would use this proceedings again in the future. This may be attributed in part to a lingering distrust of traditional patriarchal institutions, or to occurrences during the dispute resolution process that made women feel uncomfortable, ashamed, misunderstood or belittled. To counter these possibilities, the AVCB project has incorporated initiatives focused on women into its project activities. For example, AVCB provides educational sessions at the village level to raise awareness among women of the village court system and of their legal rights. Additionally, the AVCB now mandates that village court panels have at least one female member in cases involving women or children.

The AVCB’s initiatives provide one example of how citizens’ perceptions can be interpreted and incorporated into services meant to improve justice delivery.  The perception data collected is integral to guiding the reforms necessary to improve the accessibility of the justice system in Bangladesh. In a country where ongoing political instability, including politically-motivated violence, continues to jeopardize confidence in public institutions and pose serious threats to the prevailing law and order, the need for a robust and accessible justice system is perhaps more acute than ever.

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