Nepal has a complex informal justice system, with an array of traditional, indigenous and religious mechanisms. This system contributes massively to enhancing access to justice in the country, especially for rural, poor and marginalised people.
Yet the system falls outside the remit of the state and has some significant deficiencies. Firstly, the system needs to strengthen and standardise its practices, and, crucially, to develop compliance with human rights principles. It also needs to be better connected to the formal justice system, for instance to enable the referral of criminal cases. At the same time, the formal justice system also needs reform to make it more effective and accessible.
That is why International Alert, in partnership with the Forum for Women, Law and Development (FWLD) and Legal Aid Consultancy Centre (LACC), is working to enhance the capacity of the informal justice system, including creating better links between the formal and informal systems. The work is part of a European Union-funded project called ‘State and non-state partnership for inclusive justice’.
On 29 January, Alert and its partners organised a national-level workshop to generate discussion on the importance of improving links between formal and informal justice actors. The event also looked at the need for greater ‘gender-responsiveness’ in justice mechanisms (i.e. an awareness of and responsiveness to the gender dimensions of justice), and the importance of restorative justice among formal and informal justice actors such as court officials and judges.
During the event, we screened a short film called Partnership for Justice, which documents the personal stories of people whose lives have been transformed through better justice provision and the training and support they received through our work.
"Before, we used to settle any case," says Mohammad, a teacher at a local madrasa in Banke district. "Now we know which cases we should handle and which we should not. With the help of such training we are changing our ways of doing things."
It is an experience shared by Jagannath, a Tharu traditional leader in Kailali district: "Now I realise that back then we would be looking into criminal cases as well – they are not under our jurisdiction; we would be taking decisions even without knowing the legal dimensions of such decisions. Now we know what we should and should not do."
The workshop was also an opportunity to present the findings of our recent research, Re-assessing gender norms after conflict: Gender in peacebuilding in Nepal, which assesses current conflict and peacebuilding dynamics in the country in relation to gender and other identity markers such as age, caste and ethnicity.
The event, which was held at the Hotel Himalaya in Kathmandu, was attended by 170 representatives of the judiciary, government, donors, civil society, media and informal justice sector.
Speaking at the event, Supreme Court Justice Honourable Sushila Karki (pictured above, far right) acknowledged the importance of informal justice systems, as well as the need to reform the formal justice system to make it more gender-responsive. "The right time has come to systematise informal justice systems, but we need to make sure that such systems are not biased or forceful. In addition, we need to ensure our existing formal justice system is also accessible, responsive, people-centric and sensitive to the needs of justice seekers."
Chief guest, Honourable Minister Narhari Acharya (pictured top right), noted that informal justice actors are an integral part of delivering justice in Nepal, but that there is the need to acknowledge certain challenges in their justice delivery process, partly due to their need for a deeper understanding of Nepali law and justice principles. He said that the government recognises the need to enhance the knowledge and capacity of these informal justice actors, and to develop appropriate mechanisms to monitor and regulate their activities. He also expressed his appreciation for Alert and others supporting the government on this issue.
After the event, Alert held two follow-up discussions. One high-level discussion focused on the role of formal justice actors (e.g. district court judges, public prosecutors and court officials) in strengthening gender-responsive restorative justice, which led to the development of a set of recommendations for the government and judiciary. Another roundtable co-hosted with the UN Resident Coordinator’s Office and the Conflict Victims Common Platform, focused on gendered dimensions of access to transitional justice, and gender and livelihoods for conflict-affected persons. The discussion, which involved victims, donors, UN staff and civil society representatives, explored potential avenues for support in light of the findings of Alert’s recent research. It quickly emerged that a gender lens is essential for addressing these issues at the institutional and personal levels, to ensure policy gains made in terms of rights and representation are retained and expanded, and that discriminatory practices are broken. It was agreed that policies and programmes should challenge stereotypes and narrow social gaps, and be developed in close consultation with victims’ groups and civil society.