Lack of access to the formal justice system is large problem for rural populations in most low and middle income countries. In Bangladesh informal dispute resolution mechanisms are common, but often lack the power to enforce decisions. There is also a perception of bias stemming from local power structures, which may discourage marginalized groups from using such mechanisms.
In 2006 the Government of Bangladesh passed into law a system of Village Courts (VCs) which are given the power to resolve smaller disputes (up to BDT 75,000, or roughly US$ 1,000). The VCs are anchored in the lowest tier of government, the Union Parishad (UP), with the UP Chair acting as the Chair of the court. While this is a great idea in theory to resolve small disputes cheaply with lower administrative complications, qualitative reports indicate that frequency of formation and use of the VCs have thus far been low. To counter this deficit, the Government of Bangladesh has launched a program called Activating Village Courts in Bangladesh (AVCB).
The AVCB program helps UPs to set up VC by educating local government representatives, providing material and human resources, and running awareness campaigns to encourage the local population to seek help from the VC. We will conduct an impact evaluation of the AVCB program using a Randomized Controlled Trial (RCT).
The impact evaluation would compare a treatment group of UPs where the AVCB program is implemented to a “control group” of UPs that do receive the program during the two-year study period. The impact evaluation will answer questions about the causal effect of the AVCB program on a range of outcome variables designed to test each step in our theory of how the VC affects village life. We will examine three broad categories of outcome variables. First, an “Access to justice” component will measure the cost and time it takes to resolve disputes, and the mechanisms households choose to use to resolve any dispute that they are involved in. Second, “quality of the justice process” will measure the nature and duration of continued conflict after the dispute was “resolved”, and self-reported satisfaction measures. Third, we will track longer term downstream effects of improved dispute resolution such as changes in economic activities where cooperation and contract enforcement are valuable, crime rates, trust and communal harmony, as well as political outcomes such as the satisfaction with the UP leaders. The impact evaluation will also be able to assess the spillover effect of the AVCB program on the Bangladeshi local justice system. Does, for example, the VCs decrease the burden on the district courts?