FRANCIS S NII
An entry in The Crocodile Prize
PNG Chamber of Minerals & Petroleum
Essay & Journalism Award
THE O’NEILL-DION GOVERNMENT allocated K38.4 million in the 2014 national budget for the remuneration of the 4,800 officials in the 1,600 village courts throughout Papua New Guinea. This is a judicious policy of recompense that needs to be be sustained by successive national governments in future.
In a country where the bulk of her population dwells in small, scattered and isolated communities across rugged terrain where civilisation is still a dream and the presence of government literally zero, village courts are often the only evidence of tangible governance; maintaining order and peace in what could otherwise have been an anarchic state of affairs.
Established under the Village Courts Act of 1973, the village courts came into operation in 1975, the year that Papua New Guinea gained independence. It is the foundation of the country’s four-tier judicial system: Village, District, National and Supreme Courts.
The personnel comprise a magistrate who mediates disputes, a court clerk who is a record keeper, and a peace officer who assists the court and enforces its decisions.
The core function is to ensure peace and harmony in the area for which it is established by mediating and endeavouring to obtain just and amicable settlement of disputes.
Specific offences within the court’s jurisdiction include striking, using insulting words, property damage, drunkenness, failure to perform customary duties and sorcery.
A village court may order compensation of up to K300 but without limit in cases regarding custody of children, bride price or compensation for death.
Despite difficulties like the formality of procedures, complicated application of customs, unofficial dispute resolution and lack of supervision by District Court magistrates, these are important courts that have effectively served one-third of PNG for the last 38 years.
A positive sentiment was expressed in The Report on Law and Order in Papua New Guinea: “While there are no objective measures, it seems likely that village courts are contributing to the maintenance of order by assisting in the peaceful settlement of disputes and proving quicker and surer punishment for minor offenders …
“[T]hey have provided a spur to the sense of community and involvement in community, and to a sense of the worth of the things run by and for common people. Insofar as they are successfully linked to other government agencies, village courts contribute to the legitimacy of the state and hence to the other sources of order in the country at large.”
For the love of job and welfare of their people, village court officials perform their functions devotedly even under difficult and risky conditions. At times they become victims of the work they do.
For instance in 2012, a village court magistrate from Kup in the Simbu Province was reported to have been gunned down in an ambush - mistaken for enemy when he was on his way to broker peace between two warring tribes.
In November 2013, a motor vehicle belonging to the chairman of the Goroka Urban Joint Village Court was reported to have had been torched in relation to a case he chaired some days earlier.
There have been many such reports and they reflect the perils of the work of the courts. And guess how much magistrates have been getting for the drudgery? A lousy K24- 32 a month, paid in a lump sum once or twice a year.
Many of them had to spend substantial amounts of money on transport to collect the paltry allowance. For example, village court officials from Nomane in the Simbu province spent K100 on PMVs to travel to Kundiawa, collect their allowance and return. This is equivalent to five months’ allowance. Meals and accommodation were extras.
Consider areas like Karimui, Marawaka, Telefomin and others that are accessible only by air; the average return air fare is around K300 and it is not worth the expense or the risk. It is farcically uneconomical to pursue collecting the fee.
In most instances, village court officials performed their jobs without worrying about their allowance. The council presidents and the district officials who have access to provincial headquarters got the pay and kept it for themselves.
The only benefit magistrates’ depend on and will continue to do so is the K50 court fines paid by plaintiffs and defendants.
Despite the poor pay, magistrates have been relentlessly loyal to their work. While some of the pioneer magistrates and peace officers have passed on or retired, others have survived the test of time. They have been through thick and thin and to this very day are maintaining law and order in their communities.
One of these stalwarts is Tabai Philip (pictured) of Yobai Village Court in Salt Nomane. He became a magistrate when the Village Court was first introduced to the area in 1977 and has been the chairman of the joint sitting ever since.
I met Tabai in Kundiawa Town on the eve of New Year and asked him how he felt about the new remuneration and he promptly replied: “This is the first time that the national government has recognised the importance of the Village Courts and the value of the service we workers have been rendering to the community and the nation in a momentous way. I am very happy”.
Tabai’s sentiment is a reflection of the general feelings among the village court workers throughout the country.
I asked him about how much they would be paid and a jubilant Tabai replied: “Mipela i no save yet tasol tokwin i olsem mipela bai kisim samting olsem K200 i go long K300 long wan-wan fotnait [We don’t know yet but the rumour is that we will be paid something like K200 - K300 a fortnight]”.
We are now in 2014 and prime minister Peter O’Neill proclaimed this week that this is the year of implementation for the new payment scheme. Can the new remuneration come into effect in January to give credence to the prime minister’s statement?
More importantly, can this worthy policy be sustained in the years to come? The history of PNG politics has shown that the demise of the reigning government is the demise of major policies.
However, such a fate should not meet this policy for it is judicious that, regardless of who is in power, it must be valued and sustained as long as the Village Court exists.