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Community Courts: Helping Citizens Settle Disputes out of Courts
Meron Abraha , Nov 23, 2005

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Recently, a meeting attended by officials from the Ministry of Justice, sub-regional administrators and heads of branches of the different ministries evaluated the role community courts play in resolving the different cases brought to them. Following is an excerpt of an interview with Mr. Alem Ghebru, Head of the Community Courts Monitoring Office at the Ministry of Justice:

 

What are community courts? What is their role?

 

A community court is like a court where members of a community settle their cases through arbitration. Its aim is to help the citizens reconcile over their problems according to their local norms and values and save unnecessary waste of money and time by going to regular courts. The magistrates are respected members of the community and are elected in a democratic way by their fellow villagers.

 

What can you tell us about the structure and historical background of community courts in Eritrea?

 

Community courts are the result of a long experience. Long ago, there were reconciliation committees formed to resolve disputes between two parties. Since these committees lacked formal power and the commitment of the disputants to abide by the committees’ decisions, there were sometimes problems. Evaluating these shortcomings, it was decided that community courts that could formally resolve cases according to the customs and practices of the community should be established. Thus, community courts were officially launched on November 1, 2003 under Proclamation 132/2003 with a two-year term of office.

 

A community court is composed of three judges, all having the same power in voting. For documenting purposes, at least one of the three has to be literate.

 

Its structure is based on the organizational structure of the local administrations, each district administration having one community court. There are a total of 683 community courts across the country with the number of magistrates totaling to 2,049, i.e. 55 in the Central Region, 213 in the South, 178 in Gash-Barka, 109 in Anseba, 98 in the Northern and 30 in the Southern Red Sea regions.

 

What relations do these community courts have with the regular courts?

 

According to Proclamation 132/2003, community courts are the lowest in a structure of three levels: community courts, regional courts and high court. As I said earlier, community courts work on the basis of the customs of the area. In cases where reconciliation is not possible, it uses its power of decision and gives a verdict. Thus it has dual responsibilities. The regular courts on the other hand work strictly according to the articles of the law.

 

But both have working relations as well. For instance, if any disputant is not satisfied by the decision of the community court, then it can appeal to the regional court. The regional court, upon appeal, can transfer the case to the higher court of the region for final ruling. Therefore, both are interdependent. 

 

How do you evaluate the activities carried out by the community courts so far?

 

The Ministry has conducted a survey on community courts: on how activities were carried out, problems they encounter in their proceedings, their recognition by the local residents, etc. The survey came up with a positive evaluation.

 

There were about 30,000 cases presented to these courts up to last September. Out of these about 91.5% were either peacefully resolved or a verdict passed on, 8.5% are in process, and 2.9 have been appealed to and were resolved in either the regional or high courts. (Refer to table below for the breakdown.)

 

Regions

Cases

Reconciliation

Judgment

In Process

Appeal

Central

4,274

2,551 (59.7%)

1,256 (29.4%)

467 (10.9%)

179 (4.2%)

Southern

12,544

8,983 (71.6%)

2,630 (20.9%)

931 (7.4%)

512 (4.1%)

Gash-Barka

4,951

2,213 (44.7%)

2,368 (47.8%)

370 (7.5%)

78 (1.6%)

Anseba

4,900

2,283 (46.6%)

2,123 (43.3%)

494 (10.1%)

82 (1.7%)

N. Red Sea

2,762

1,117 (40.1%)

1,419 (51.4%)

226 (8.2%)

15 (0.5%)

S. Red Sea

275

87 (31.6%)

161 (58.5%)

27 (9.8%)

12 (4.3%)

Total

29,706

17,234 (58%)

9,957 (33.5%)

2,515 (8.5%)

878 (2.9%)

 

To see such a number of cases settled within the communities is only en example of how significant these community courts are.

 

What about their acceptance by the people?

 

Well, the communities have democratically elected people whom they believed can deliver justice to be their magistrates. This shows how far they respected the establishment of community courts.

 

Before the establishment of these community courts, people had to incur a lot of expenses to travel to the regular courts, which were set up only in limited towns due to staff shortage. Now, however, since it has saved the citizens from the expenses, they are trying to accept the rulings and at the same time develop the courts further.

 

The magistrates and the people are helping each other and the fact that 58% of the cases were solved in reconciliation clearly shows that the people are indeed supporting the system.

 

Moreover, in the meetings we held with the communities, we managed to find that they would like the community courts’ two-year term extended. There is no better evidence than this that these courts are in fact playing a significant role in solving the problems the people face in their daily lives, without going for litigation in the regular courts.

 

 

 

Does the educational background of the judges influence their activities?

 

Traditionally Eritreans used to solve their problems through local assemblies or village councils. Of course with the advent of modern legal systems and their documentation requirements, education could probably pose a problem in some of the remote villages. The judges working in the community courts in cities and towns have comparatively higher education and less problems in recording their works, as they are either secondary school graduates, teachers, older people currently on pension, experienced civil servants and so on.

 

Generally speaking, all community court judges have no problems in efficiently performing their duties. There are, however, problems in office space and methods of documentation; and we are trying to solve these problems in cooperation with the government and other partners, by giving training and technical assistance.

 

Since the judges of a community court are fellow villagers, aren’t there concerns of nepotism? How do you supervise them?

 

If we look at the 30,000 cases presented to courts, most of them were resolved by reconciliation and only 2.9% of the decisions were appealed. This shows us that the people have accepted the verdicts passed. However, to say there are no concerns would not be right. So the Ministry of Justice follows two techniques of monitoring.

 

One is setting up regional monitoring offices, which carry out continued follow up on the courts’ activities in the region and provides technical assistance. When some judges show inappropriate conduct, the monitoring office, upon the people’s appeal, takes correctional measures on the judges.

 

Another technique is to make sure that the case is appealed to the regional or high court for a final decision.

 

Based on the evaluations, what changes do you think should be adopted?

 

Of course, the evaluations addressed different concerns. Should we stick to the existing structure? Did all the community courts equally contribute in the 30,000 cases presented? Is it necessary for a court to exist if it receives no cases? Is it fair to pay the same salary to all the judges whether they are working or not? Considering all these, the Ministry of Justice has observed that there needs to be a new organization that enables all community courts to have equal participation.

 

If we look at the community courts in the cities they have flurry of activities because of the number of people in the urban area. If we look at the courts in the remote areas on the other hand, only few are active. In the Southern Red Sea for instance, since the inhabitants usually solved their problems according to their respective tribal customs, only 275 cases were presented to the community courts in the last year and a half. And so we have noted that there is no need of having a community court in the area.

 

Besides, considering their number and geographical location, it is hard to effectively administer and monitor each court and provide facilities to those which are active or not. Therefore, we have been discussing with concerned authorities as to how we can reduce the number to one court for two or three district administrations. The evaluation shows reduction in the number of courts to be advisable.

 

How do you see the Eritrean community courts in comparison with the experience of other countries?

 

A community may have a court structure that matches its own social development. Some use ‘magistrate courts’ while others in Europe and Africa use the Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) system. There could also be some oriental countries that make use of the ‘Social Court.’  

 

In the magistrate court system, a permanent court composed of an expert in law sees over minor civil and criminal cases. Whereas in an ADR system, the cases are taken out of court and settled by professionals in the field. If for instance the dispute is on medical matters, then qualified doctors settle the case. But if the cases remain still unresolved, then the disputants go back to court as the ADR lacks the authority to pass final verdicts.

 

The community courts in Eritrea however have advantages as they have full power to pass verdicts. So if the disputants fail to reconcile, the court can give its verdict. The government didn’t introduce such a system by copying it from other countries; instead it based it on the culture and traditions of democracy in Eritreans.

 

If you have any last words…

 

I would like to commend the people for showing the good side of the culture of reconciliation, which has been evaluated as being 97% effective. But there should be the government’s role and organization to ensure its continuity. And if there are any sides who belittle the roles of these courts, I would like to recommend them to go down to the village levels and see for themselves the strength of the resolutions the judges pass based on their norms and values as well as the benefits the people are getting from the courts.

 

(Adapted from Haddas Eritrea Vol. 15 N. 23 September 27, 2005)

 

 


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