Reform the justice system

Amal Chatterjee
12 min readNov 19, 2021

Source : Google photo of the justice system needing reform

Synopsis : The reform in the justice system worldwide to make it easier for the poor people to get justice at a minimum cost and hassle is long overdue but it faces many challenges due to vested interests of non-reformists. The blog looks at many issue that need addressing as well as the parallel justice system prevailing in some countries that serve the poor better.

Once I was in a court room not as a litigant but as an observer where the hearing on a case was in progress. There was a poor man who had been summoned to be present for the hearing. He obviously had come from a distance spending a great deal of money that he could ill afford and was showing great sign of distress and discomfort but it was just the start of a circus that was being played in the name of justice so I was shocked.

The lawyer who was grandstanding and repeating words like “ I must remind you that you are under the oath “ Quoting from Perry Mason in English that the poor man could not understand. So the questions thrown at him were first translated into the language he understood so that he could answer them that had to be again translated back into English so the whole process became very tedious and lengthy.

To make the matter worse, the court stenographer who did not know stenography kept interrupting the procedure because she could not write in her yellow bond paper fast enough with pencil and frequently asked how to spell some words. It was quite obvious that she did not speak, read or write English so why was she employed to be the court steno?

Why was English the court language when it was not spoken or understood by anyone including the lawyer who was only quoting what he had memorized from the Perry Mason movies? Why the judge did not order the lawyer to speak only in the vernacular so that the hearing could proceed speedily? Why the court had appointed a woman as a steno who did not know stenography and who could not understand, read or spell English words? I was not amused and felt sorry for the poor man fidgeting and sweating in that court room that was poorly ventilated and was hot.

I was very annoyed by the comic nature of the proceedings and thought that the whole thing reeked of a farce that the poor man was being subjected to in the name of justice wasting everybody’s time doing injustice to the justice that the court was supposed to deliver.

The corruption of the justice system whether criminal or civil is a worldwide phenomenon that has a created a backlog of cases in every court in any country where the litigants may have to wait years for justice that they in the end may or may not get. It ruins them completely because the tremendous cost of litigation and the years they have to wait for the justice that may still be denied to them if the crooked lawyers have their way.

It is said that the justice delayed is the justice denied but looking at the court proceedings I wondered if the poor farmer who was dragged to the court will ever get the justice and how he will pay for all the cost.

The criminal justice system that had its roots in England in the past centuries was imposed on its colonies like India and other countries by the colonialists that still remains in place using laws that have become obsolete and meaningless but the courts says that they do not make the laws. They just implement them.

It all starts at the local police station where a person may go and register a case against someone who had committed a crime like rape, murder or assault so a First Information Report or FIR is lodged by the attending policeman citing violations of many laws. A judge may then issue an arrest warrant so that the offending person may be put in jail waiting for a trial to begin so that a verdict may be reached on the case.

But if the complainant is a poor person in shabby clothes seeking justice or a poor woman who says that she was raped by many men will often be ignored and the policemen may not register an FIR from her. It changes if the person reporting a crime is well dressed and comes in a fancy car then he may even be offered a cup of tea. This prejudice against the people of lower caste who are mostly poor is widespread in India.

So I will go back to the time in England when a poor starving boy who stole a loaf of bread was arrested and dragged to a court room without the representation of a competent lawyer was sentenced by a tough judge after a preliminary hearing and sentenced the poor child to be transported meaning sending him in slave ships to Australia that had become a penal colony for England. Thousands of poor men, women and children were thus transported to Australia where many perished under extremely harsh conditions. Those who survived the long sea voyage, scurvy and diarrhea were forced to work to build prisons and other buildings. Here is a video to watch on the subject.

Link :

Source : U tube video

Transportation had been used as a form of punishment since 1717. Under the “Bloody Code” , courts were looking for a punishment which was not as extreme as hanging, but tougher than a fine. In the absence of proper prisons, transportation seemed the answer and was used for over a hundred years. In the 18th century convicts were transported to America. After US independence in 1776, however, this option was closed and the British government looked for another destination. Australia had been mapped and claimed as British territory in 1770, so convicts began to be sent there. From 1787 to 1857, 162,000 British convicts were transported to Australia. Seven out of eight of these were males; some were as young as nine or ten; some were over eighty. Many political prisoners were transported, including Luddites, Chartists, the Tolpuddle Martyrs and Irish Nationalists.

They were sent first to the “hulks” -disused warships. Conditions on these rotting vessels were often terrible, with death rates of one in three. The long voyage to Australia could take six months. Many lives were lost among the convicts, locked in iron cages below decks in insanitary conditions, although by the end of the transportation era more care was taken and loss of life on the voyage was minimized.

Once in Australia, convicts lived in barracks and worked in gangs, building roads and bridges or working on farms or quarries. Some were sent out to work for farmers. If they behaved themselves, their sentence could be reduced by a “ticket of leave.” The majority of convicts decided to stay in Australia at the end of their sentences, recognizing that they could make a better life there than returning to Britain and, probably, poverty and crime.

By the mid-19th century, however, opinion was turning against transportation. The “Bloody Code” had ended. It seemed wrong to offer convicts a free passage to build a new life in Australia when some people were paying to go. Removing criminals to another land did not seem to have had any effect on the crime-rate. Prisons were now considered a better method of punishing and/or reforming criminals and many new ones were being built. Most of all, Australians began to object strongly to their country being used as a dumping-ground for Britain’s criminals. ( Source : Wikipedia)

The courts in England were filled by lawyers in black robes in every corridor who looked important carrying voluminous documents with very sinister looks on their face because they literally were responsible for the fate of those who had broken the law in some way. The punishments were so severe for stealing a loaf of bread that even a starving child was not spared.

The courts are now filled with dockets that are given a number that the court clerk decides to present or not to present to the judge depending upon the severity of the crime or when the docket was filed but it led to massive corruption in the justice system making the court clerks very rich.

Those who cannot pay the clerk may have their cases languish for years and never see the day when a verdict is reached. Some litigants may die, witnesses may vanish, documents may be forged, some people may be threatened or intimidated by the offending parties so there may be many reasons why a case is delayed for years.

The lawyers benefit for this delay because they get paid each time a case comes up for hearing so they always try to postpone it to a future date causing severe anguish to the people seeking justice.

A court is a horrible place filled with fear, anxiety, trepidation and a sense of finality that can destroy a person even if he is not guilty of any crime. We hear of numerous cases of miscarriage of justice when an innocent person is put in jail for twenty years for a crime he did not commit so who pays for his lost twenty years? Does a simple apology suffice? Why were innocent and hungry children sent to Australia and not given few loaves of bread and sent home? Was there no social service for them?

Now a days literally any person can be put in jail on trumped up charges that he has to fight in court and spend a great deal of money and time in jail just to prove that he is innocent.

I will now go back to the time when the king presided over a case and decided swiftly if the accused was guilty or not and gave the verdict accordingly. His court was not filled with back robed lawyers hovering over the accused like vultures but filled with dread and a sense of finality just the same because the king decided the fate of the accused without lengthy deliberations.

Source : Elephant as an executioner of a convict in King’s court

I have seen myself how justice was done during the time of Emperor Akbar. In his new capital Fatehpur Sikri , Akbar had a massive elephant chained to a peg of stone. This elephant was trained to execute a person who was given the death penalty by the king by stepping on his chest. The king was a very busy person and had many duties to fulfill as a ruler so his time was precious. This swift method of justice worked so well that very few people violated the laws. No one could be bribed in the King’s court.

Now many justices of the Supreme Court in India have demanded the reform of the justice system because they being lawyers have experienced the corruption that delays the justice but they have come up against a deeply entrenched system that maintains the status quo.

The lawyers benefit from the delays and the courts benefit from the income they get from the fees the litigants have to pay so people suffer. The lower courts are filled with cases filed there on frivolous grounds that do not merit court’s time. You will frequently hear of cases filed by people who want to sue someone for defamation even if they are known to be criminals. This has created a huge backlog of cases that wait for years to be heard.

To complicate the matter, there is a shortage of judges everywhere while the number of lawyers keep multiplying. Many universities churn out Law graduates in record numbers who want to become lawyers.

I will now write about a parallel justice system that exists in some countries even today so I will start with Haiti where I used to work as an agronomist. The Haitians often take their grievances to a court run by Houngans or voodoo priests who meet secretly or often not so secretly to deliver justice. You can hear their drum beats late at night when they gather somewhere to perform some voodoo rituals that are attended by a large number of people. These rituals are of religious nature that are not approved by the Bible thumpers but its origin is rooted in the African tribal culture they brought to Haiti long ago.

Source : Google photo of houngans in Haiti in voodoo ceremony

The houngans or the voodoo priests prepare a very powerful toxin they derive from the puffer fish and mix it with some other secret stuff. If someone steps on the powder unknowingly, he loses all control over his body and becomes like a corpse but does not lose his consciousness. This is how they punish a person who has committed a serious crime by making him a zombie They do not rise from their coffin but wander around after losing their mind.

In Africa where I have worked in many countries, I have learned that in all their villages, they have their village councils headed by their village chief. The chief and all the members of their village council are elected freely by the villagers so they serve free of charge for a certain period. If a member or the chief dies, they elect a new chief or the member again. The village council hears of cases of land dispute, domestic issues, petty crimes, thievery, sex related abuses and all such matters that they try to solve.

Source : Google photo of African village council meeting

Often the punishment can be in the form of a few goats or cows that the offender must give to the offended party or some money. They also serve as a counsel in the case of domestic violence or disputes. There are no jails for the accused but people generally respect the verdict of the council in any case so I found that their system really works in rural areas. The urban area crimes are a very different matter that are handled by the police and the courts.

This parallel system of justice at the village level in many countries in Africa and in other parts of the world serves the poor better than their court system rife with corruption and inefficient docket method delaying justice.

In any civilized society, we are supposed to be governed by laws that are promulgated by the elected members of the parliament or congress if the country has a democratic system. There are thousands of laws dating from antiquity while new ones are made all the time. There are thousands of old and obsolete laws that are no longer valid today but no one dares to remove them.

Now the present Minister of Law in India has been given the task of removing all the obsolete laws made during the British rule in India but it is a daunting task for any one person so I am sure he has a team of experts working on the subject.

One proposal that has been around for a while in India is to bring a mobile justice system to the poor where they live where a judge can solve the case quickly and move on to the next village. How it will be implemented remains to be seen. Most of the cases in rural areas come from land dispute that may often lead to violence. Then there are rape and sexual domestic violence cases so mobile system can bring relief to the poor people.

In the Philippines, they have the barangay ( barrio) courts where small disputes can be resolved often amicably without expensive lawyers and court fees. I have taken some offending people to the barangay office myself who had behaved badly.

The serious reform the justice system needs and demands worldwide has many obstacles thrown at it by the people who have vested interest in keeping the status quo.

Meanwhile people seeking redress to the injustice they suffer are waiting.

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