Trials and tribulations

Nepal must bring technology, critical thought and best practice to restore public faith in its judiciary

PHOTO: GOPEN RAI

The waning faith of the public in Nepal's courtrooms and (in)justice delivered should invoke a debate in the legislature about what the fundamental philosophy of our legal system should be.

When foreigners ask us what legal system Nepal follows, we lawyers stumble a little and repeat what we were all taught in law school: ‘It is mixed with influences from the common legal system, civil legal system and Hindu legal system.’

Since Nepal was never colonised we have not fully embraced either the civil legal system from continental Europe, nor common law from Britain. Until 1990, the legal process resonated more with civil law traditions, then switching abruptly to common law practices. There has not been much legislative discourse on why we had that change of heart. 

Take a criminal trial as example. The basic premise of the adversarial format is that judges sits as neutral umpires in trials. They use the arguments, facts and evidence produced by defense lawyers (representing the suspects) and prosecutors (representing the victim) to reach a decision and ruling.

Compare this to a judge in a civil law/inquisitorial tradition. The judge is an active member of the trial process who participates in fact-finding public inquiry by questioning defence lawyers, prosecutors, and witnesses. They can even order certain pieces of evidence to be examined if they find the presentation by the defense or prosecution to be inadequate.

In Nepali criminal cases, the judge is neutral so the police and prosecutors are charged with gathering evidence. The law states that the prosecutor should supervise the police as they investigate a case to ensure the police use only legal methods to obtain information.

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However, in reality the police and prosecutors are too busy to coordinate with one another. They also tend to dislike each other. In most cases police investigation reports are copied in whole by the prosecutor who adds a few short paragraphs at the end. And that constitutes the charge sheet: the legal document which sets out which crimes a suspect has committed and should be punished for. 

When Nepal’s legal system was more inquisitorial before 1992, our trial procedure was governed by the 1961 Government Cases Act (Sarkari Mudda Sambandhi Ain 2017). Prosecutors who served under this law speak fondly about their partnership with the police. 

I have spoken to prosecutors who recall walking together with the police for hours and days across the rural mountains to examine crime scenes. Together they would examine bodies and draw up reports. They never forgot the smell of death.

This practice was abruptly brought to a halt when the Government Cases Act 1992 (Sarkari Mudha Sambandhi Ain 2049) repealed the 1961 law. The new law was predicated on adversarial practice. The police did the investigation in the field, prosecutors now sat in their offices and gave directives to the investigation team. The shift in power dynamics did not sit well with the police. The relationship between police and prosecutors became frosty and disrespectful as they undermined each other. 

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What this means for a criminal case is that evidence is not verified for its thoroughness during investigation. The disintegration of the process continues into the courts. One of the primary methods of obtaining evidence in a criminal case within courtrooms is through the accounts given by witnesses of the crime. According to Nepali law witness answers must be verified by the opposing lawyers through cross-examination, and through the presiding judge. 

Alas, procedure is often completely subverted. The law expressly states that all witnesses who testify in court must be examined in front of a judge. The part that judges 'must preside' over these proceedings was written in the 2017 Muluki Criminal Procedure Code. This provision sought to rectify the longstanding practice in Nepali criminal trials whereby the judge is mostly absent from witness examinations unless the case involves the rich and powerful.

Nepali legal system
Illustration: Bhanu Bhattarai/Nepali Times Archive

In practice, witness examinations are conducted by the administrative staff of the court. We are not taught how to conduct witness exams in law school or any legal professional training. So witness examination which tends to be critical to a criminal trial is just a formality.

It feels particularly so when the court administrator snipes at us to finish questioning quickly, prevents us from introducing all witnesses we listed, and summarises what our witnesses say in their own often truncated language as opposed to verbatim. The judges have the power to question and verify statements but this is impossible when they are altogether absent from the proceedings.

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In our 'mixed' legal system I've understood judges to have a varied perspective on their roles in the criminal trial. Many perceive themselves as neutral umpires envisioned in the common law adversarial system. Yet, some of their conduct says otherwise.

For example, every day after 2PM in the District Courts, suspects arrested by the police are brought before a judge. The purpose of this meeting is to get permission from the judge to keep the suspect in detention as their case is being investigated. 

Nepal's Constitution mandates that these suspects should have their lawyers accompanying them. The judge has a role to ensure this. However, in most of these proceedings no lawyers are present. The judge curiously asks the suspect whether they committed the crime, how many kilos of drugs they carried. Action unpermitted by the adversarial common law philosophy of practice.  

If the leaning is towards the inquisitorial system and we argue that judges can be proactive then we do not have a system built for this either. Judges get cases they are to hear about an hour before the proceedings begin. They do not preside over evidence taking events such as witness examinations so they are realistically unable to control any part of the investigation or evidence gathering.

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In this context, the legislator's role has to start from drawing out the philosophical basis of our legal system. Lawmakers needs to seriously consider whether it suffices to leave investigations to the police alone, or we need all parties like the prosecutors and judges taking on active roles in the investigative and trial processes. The fundamental consideration should be based on a practice that will increase the likelihood of getting to the truth and contribute to restoring public faith in our judiciary. 

The legislature of course need not be confined by influences of one colonial legal system or another. Like the International Criminal Court, it can draw lessons from major legal systems across the world, combine it with local experience to formulate a legal system and trial practice uniquely suited to Nepal. 

Aristotle said ‘the whole is greater than its sub parts’. Likewise, the opportunity to bring technology, critical thought and best practice to reform trials in Nepal is urgently needed.

Aastha Dahal

writer

Aastha Dahal is a Kathmandu-based lawyer.

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