Representatives from Ministry of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs and the Supreme Court discuss ways to reduce the number of long pending cases in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Democracy International


Improving Efficiency and Public Trust: Transforming Courts in Bangladesh

Long delays in the justice process in Bangladesh, as in many countries in the world, damage public trust and corrode the rule of law. It is not uncommon for civil cases – mostly related to land disputes – to span generations, and people merely accused of crimes are known to languish for months, sometimes even years, in prison awaiting trial. The judiciary and government of Bangladesh have repeatedly voiced their commitment to reducing the case backlog and strengthening case management. They recognize that these measures are essential to promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, a vision the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) outlines in its first Rule of Law Policy.  

USAID’s Promoting Peace and Justice Activity, a five-year project implemented by Democracy International (DI), has been working with the judiciary and government of Bangladesh to reduce the case backlog and decrease the number of new cases entering the courts. This work has been built on an understanding of the need for locally led program initiatives to ensure that all courts could easily replicate these initiatives. Similarly, these efforts have recognized the need to incorporate flexibility into the process to allow for real-time adjustments and pivots if necessary.

In the initial phase, we worked with the judiciary and government of Bangladesh to understand challenges the country’s justice system faces, employing assessment tools from the International Framework for Court Excellence, which is a quality management system designed to help courts improve their performance. In 2019, the team conducted a thorough evaluation with more than 200 judges and court staff to understand key pressure points, which were validated during a national workshop led by the Chief Justice in February 2020.

As the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic subsided in 2022, DI supported efforts to bring together judges from two pilot district courts and representatives from the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Law, Justice, and Parliamentary Affairs through a series of workshops to discuss ideas about how to improve active case management and reduce case backlogs based on the International Framework for Court Excellence. The discussions also incorporated inputs from the judges’ own experiences and international best practices, which resulted in participating judges formulating their unique Court Improvement Plans. The plans are tailored to their specific priorities and are currently undergoing pilot implementation in their respective courts. DI has supported the efforts with both regular formal check-ins and continuous informal mentoring.

The Court Improvement Plans encompass a range of strategic elements developed by the participating judges, including:

  1. Providing information directly to justice seekers on the advantages of Alternative Dispute Resolution and how to initiate the process;
  2. Engaging with the local bar associations and seeking their cooperation on efforts to improve the efficacy of the courts;
  3. Recognizing learned judges who excel at active case management;
  4. Labeling case files that have been pending for more than five years for priority disposal;
  5. Maintaining a register of the contact information for Investigating Officers and Medical Officers and reaching out by SMS or phone when their appearance is required;
  6. Hosting regular coordination meetings with justice sector actors – particularly between judges, the police, and prosecutors – to identify and resolve common challenges leading to delays in case disposal.

So far, the Court Improvement Plans’ pilot initiatives have yielded impressive results. The pilot courts focused on criminal manners have seen a noteworthy 35 percent reduction in pending cases since 2015, and a pilot court focused on civil matters recorded a 119 percent increase in its case disposal rate during the pilot period. Encouraged by these results, we anticipate that these cost-effective, locally led initiatives will produce similar results across courts throughout Bangladesh and will allow for more timely resolution of disputes.      

* Data measured from August 2022 – March 2023