The Village Court System of Papua New Guinea

The Village Court System of Papua New Guinea, introduced by legislation at the end of the colonial era, is intended to deliver ‘grassroots’ justice. At their inception, the Village Courts were enjoined to favour customary regulatory procedure and solutions (provided these were not at odds with the law) in dealing with disputes (Village Court Act 1973). With the passage of time, however, and the unavoidable long-term influence of colonially introduced legal procedures on the expectations of those who use the Village Courts and those chosen to serve in them, Village Court praxis has come to be a complex integration of formal legal procedure and a great variety of contemporary local mores popularly regarded as custom. The Village Court System was quickly extended into urban areas (despite its name), where it serves mostly settlements developed by migrants. Like the rural Village Courts, the urban Village Courts procedurally imitate District Courts and Local Courts against the intentions of the system’s instigators.

The literature about the Village Court System has moved through a debate that began with the proposition that Village Courts suffered from creeping formal legalism. Anthropological observations informed a counter-position that the courts’ substantive operations display creativity and flexibility, which perpetuate a significant degree of legal pluralism. More recently, commentators have suggested that a complex integration of law and dynamic, changing custom is making the Village Court System an alternative to traditional dispute settlement and legal formalism. Another, slightly pessimistic, view is that Village Courts are becoming institutionalised at the bottom of the heirarchy of formal courts in Papua New Guinea under the pressure of administrative impositions and the juridical expectations of the communities they serve.

A Village Court, however, is not simply a legal, or quasilegal, forum. Its officials are chosen from the community it serves and are intimately bound into the social life of that community. The possibility of bias in court decisions, driven mostly by kin-group loyalty and bribery, was foreseen by legislators who imposed rules that at least three magistrates must be on the bench to hear a case and that disputants should have the right of appeal against decisions.

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