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Informal rural courts were an important part of the kiap’s role

Informal court (Graham Forster)
An informal village court (Graham Forster)


NORTHUMBRIA – Back in colonial times, informal bush courts were taken seriously by Papua New Guinea’s village people and also by patrolling kiaps.

In this photograph from 1974, the postures adopted by the village group were typical of people taking part in the informal community courts of the time.

Regular government patrols moved through rural locations holding these courts, conducting censuses, checking on sanitation and other issues, advising on road construction and undertaking many other tasks.

The gathering shown here took place immediately in front of the haus kiap and the kiap (back to camera), who was accepted as a neutral arbiter, is sitting on its step.

In front of him, one of the patrol’s policemen is summing up the circumstances surrounding the complaint.

The aggrieved accuser is obvious and so is the discomfort of the person who has attracted the attention of the solemn village leaders in the centre, who have asked the visiting kiap to intervene.

Up until the mid-1960s these informal courts were encouraged because kiaps, and their bosses in Port Moresby, were anxious for intra-community friction to be kept to a minimum.

The people would know the kiap would be back and this minimised the prospect of unresolved tensions flaring and someone being hurt or killed.

The kiap’s ruling, which often had no backing in statute law, was likely to be accepted if he had been able to tune into the issues of the community.

This enabled kiaps to develop an understanding to enable them to deliver decisions that sat comfortably with the community’s sensitivities and expectations.

Nevertheless many kiaps found village courts difficult – not least because there were occasions it was impossible to use western law, which they were familiar with, as a reference.

The circumstances framing the complaint, sometimes shrouded in other belief systems, could be so complicated that a comprehensive understanding of the issues involved was beyond their knowledge.

As independence approached many patrolling kiaps tended to discourage these informal hearings saying it was better for village people to settle their differences among themselves.

The exceptions were, as was probably the case in this instance, those times when it was important to immediately defuse tensions.

Robert Forster is author of  'The Northumbrian Kiap'. If you want to know more about the book go to



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