When it comes to maintaining the law, Papua New Guinea has a combination of traditional and introduced court systems. It is a three-tier system. The Supreme Court and the National Court have many formal rules and hold jurisdiction over both civil and criminal matters.
The Supreme Court of Justice is the highest court of the land; having its inherent powers and enabling jurisdiction established under the Papua New Guinea Constitution. It is the ultimate and final court of appeal which hears appeals from the National Court of Justice. The judiciary is headed by a Chief Justice and is augmented by several judges and numerous magistrates.
The National Court of Justice also has inherent powers and original jurisdiction. It hears or tries criminal cases and indictable offences. It deals with civil litigation cases involving K11,000 damages or compensation and above. This court of record reviews various administrative or executive decisions of government departments or statutory authorities and body. It is a Court of Appeal that hears appeals from the District Court.
District Courts are run by Magistrates and handle the bulk of cases brought by the police. Local village courts are more informal and deal with customary law. Their aim is to encourage local people to settle their own disputes in their own way. There are some other specialised courts like the Children’s Court for those under 16, or the Coroner’s Court which deals with unexpected deaths, or the Court of Disputed Returns which deals with complaints by losers in political elections. A Warden’s Court deals with disputes relating to mining and there are other courts with responsibility for determining ownership of land and for assessing the right of customary landowners to compensation.
The Clifford report in the mid 1980’s was critical of the National court system in the first ten years since independence. Conviction rates had fallen from 80% to 50% and court delays had escalated so that the average number of days from committal to verdict was 344. Police inefficiency, poor quality of prosecution work, lack of resources, including a short supply of court reporters and interpreters hampered the course of justice. In contrast the District courts were found to be working well and even getting better.
The village courts are not traditional Melanesian institutions but they try to take Melanesian norms, values and modes of organisation into account. In general it is felt that they have contributed to the maintenance of law and order though there are criticisms such as “wantokism” by court personnel, arbitrary punishments and ignorance of proper procedure. From the first days of Independence custom was seen as an essential ingredient of nation-building. Customary law was no exception, though its integration into the legal system has been slower than was hoped. What the Justice system is looking for now are the skills, training, experience and appropriate technology to take it past the year 2000.