Devolving the judiciary

The organisational infrastructure of the court system is of critical importance for the success of Nepal’s new constitutional order. It is in the lower courts that people come face to face with the judicial branch of government, and where the ordinary and routine forms of justice most directly affecting daily life are in practice. Subnational courts therefore should not be forgotten in considering the judiciary’s irreplaceable role in instilling a commitment to the rule of law and encouraging a new way of doing politics.

Nepal’s network of 77 district courts is the gateway for virtually all of the country’s litigation (85,000 cases in 2017-18, over which district courts oversaw final resolution to 60%). Yet both in resource allocation and in public imagination, these courts are the most neglected. It is remarkable that a mere 241 judges discharge the enormous workload.

Read also:

Part 1: Federalism, rule of law and the judiciary, George Varughese and Iain Payne

Part 2: Constitutional guardianship in Nepal , George Varughese and Iain Payne

While the 2015 Constitution has changed the executive and legislative, the court structure has not undergone significant revision, except to add two district courts — for a total of 77 — and to refashion 16 appellate courts as seven high courts with their 11 benches extended across respective provinces.

The subordinate courts now have slightly enlarged purview. For the first time, provincial high courts will be able to hear public interest litigation, hopefully lessening some of the Supreme Court’s caseload burden. District courts now supervise all justice institutions, formal and informal, below the district level.

District courts also have increased authority to oversee criminal offences punishable by more than one year imprisonment, many of which were previously adjudicated by quasi-judicial bodies like the district administration office. They have new jurisdiction over some civil matters previously supervised by the district executive.

Critical access-to-justice issues have been inherited from the previous governance setup. For example, the geographical inaccessibility of the district courts, which remain the lowest court in judicial hierarchy and sit at the now obsolete district headquarters, are one of the key reasons why only a fraction of disputes tends to be registered with the proper court and judicial authority. The judiciary’s absence in municipal government is glaring and hardly addressed by the presence of so-called judicial committees, which fall under the municipal executive.

Moreover, wholesale state restructuring must take into account roles and responsibilities of different justice sector institutions at the local level, and the judicial branch’s reflections on these would be timely in guiding other branches of government. This is especially the case with regard to judicial committees in 753 locations, about which inconsistent visions are projected in the Constitution and the Local Government Operations Act of 2017— the federal framework legislation that presently guides local government operations. This is also the case with the option provided for in the Constitution allowing the creation of local courts if required. The judicial branch’s reluctance to provide guidance on constitutional provisions for accessing justice beyond district courts could result in costly adjustments.

These issues need to be addressed to guide the creation of a coherent and coordinated system for accessing justice locally, one that builds community and citizen trust in the entire justice sector and positions the judiciary in its rightful place in government. The lowest rungs of the judicial branch carry the greatest burden in making justice more accessible to more people. Much work, therefore, remains to be done to ensure that the promise of bringing all three branches of government closer to the people is fulfilled.

Renewed commitments to judicial independence headlined the recently concluded National Conference of Judges. However, aside from the hot-button topic of judicial appointments that dominated discussion, only a few creative ideas emerged. Perhaps the most federally relevant of those related to empowering provincial courts to settle disputes between provinces and municipalities. Ideas such as this, while nascent, indicate that the judiciary may be willing to look for ways to be more responsive to the needs of the changed governance context.

With a recently appointed Chief Justice and remaining vacancies filled, Nepal’s Supreme Court is drafting its fourth strategic plan with more stable leadership and better prepared justices than ever before. This will drive the judiciary’s institutional vision, direction and contribution to democratic government in Nepal over the next five years.

Previous strategic plans have focused on court administration, caseload management, infrastructural and modernisation needs, and training programs. These remain necessary but will be insufficient to fulfil the difficult role of rethinking and reworking access to justice in a federal context. Oversight of the judicial functions of the state — wherever those may be located — is a key strategic metric of performance of the judicial branch.

More difficult will be the deep institutional introspection and principled actions required to assert independence while exercising guardianship of the rule of law. It is vital that the judicial branch of the government sees itself as a trusted partner of both state and society, with its functionaries embracing their role as ‘justices of the people’ and not just of the court.

Only then will a constitutional culture shaped by the rule of law translate into access to justice in federal Nepal.

This concludes a three-part series by Iain Payne and George Varughese who are associated with Niti Foundation.