India is home to a vibrant community of approx. 104 million tribals. These communities have developed their own system of social hierarchies, various personal customs and tribal laws that govern them.

 

The Indian Constitution permits north eastern states to set up customary village councils or courts to resolve disputes between two parties belonging to a Scheduled Tribe.

 

This tribal justice system involves the interpretation of uncodified customary laws by the village chiefs, assisted by elders of a village. However, questions have been raised over conflict of such system with the common law system provided by the constitution as well. In this context, Standing Committee on Personnel, Public Grievances, Law and Justice submitted its report on the ‘Synergy between tribal justice system and the regular justice system of the country’

 

Salient observations and recommendations of the Committee include:

  • The Committee has noted that most tribal communities preferred the tribal justice system because of: (i) their familiarity with customary laws; (ii) its minimal procedure and cost effectiveness; and (iii) timely delivery of justice.
  • However, there were certain challenges:
    • Every tribe within a state had its own customary practices of dispute resolution
    • Most of the judicial decisions were not written down, and gave the tribal chief wide discretion.
    • As a result, punishments for the same crime vary from person to person.
  • Statutory recognition to tribal courts:
    • The Committee recommended that Parliament enact a law to set up a tribal justice court system.
      • States would be permitted to modify the law as per their requirements. This would give the tribal courts institutional framework, in relation to appointment of personnel, salary and benefits, etc.
      • Further, this would enable them to codify their customs, write judgments and orders, and follow laws and precedents.
      • To facilitate this, special funds may be allocated to state judicial academies and village mobile courts.
    • Separate high courts for north eastern states:
      • In its earlier report, in 2008, the Committee had recommended that separate high courts be established in the north eastern states.
      • The Committee reiterated this recommendation, as these high courts could play a role in the codification of tribal laws.
      • The judgements of the high courts will be treated as precedent, and its interpretations of customary law could be documented. The Committee also recommended that independent judicial academies be established in every state.