Within Melanesian village communities most disputes could be settled in accordance with received custom, by discussion aimed at reaching a consensus. In some societies a man became an important leader (a “big man”) by his skill in arranging settlement of disputes. Killing, however, normally demanded a killing in revenge (“pay back”). Disputes between groups were more often settled by warfare, so that warfare over land was endemic in some regions. In such cases, it was noted war leaders who became the “big men”. Colonial Administrators found it difficult to understand the way in which disputes within village communities could be settled in an orderly way without the “objective sanctions” imposed by the state through a system of law. Melanesians, equally, could not understand the introduced system of law courts. In 1963 a Native Customs (Recognition) Ordinance allowed for the application of traditional customs and processes in situations which the colonial judges believed appropriate, as long as custom did not conflict with existing legislation. The existing legal system is based on Australian legislation and British common law. However, in rural areas many disputes are still resolved in customary ways, and the national judicial system provides for the application of custom as law in some situations.
See also: Modern Law in Papua New Guinea