Forty-four Land Survey Tribunals are now riddled with 3.5 lakh cases stemming from an ongoing survey for years, despite a provision for disposing of them within a year.
Of the sum total of these cases, 1.16 lakh land related lawsuits are older than five years, according to a Supreme Court count.
First formed in 2004, the courts were supposed to have Land Survey Appellate Tribunals to settle appeals challenging the judgements. But despite the legal provision and a separate High Court (HC) order in 2019, the appellate tribunals are yet to be formed.
Therefore, litigants aggravated by judgements passed by the land tribunals, now have to go for writs with the High Court (HC).
As many as 1.5 lakh such writs are awaiting disposal with the HC, while more than 11,000 land dispute appeals challenging the HC writs are currently pending with the Appellate Division.
With an amendment to the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act-1950, the Land Survey Tribunal and Land Survey Appellate Tribunal were incorporated in 2004.
To dispose of the suits arising from the final publication of the last revised record-of-rights, 32 Land Survey Tribunals were established after the amendment, with 12 more tribunals formed in several districts, later in 2012.
What are the tribunals for?
Land owners go to the tribunals to settle their disputes arising from the final publication of the last revised record-of-rights. After scrutinising the claims, the land tribunals hand over the lands to the rightful owners.
A land survey began in Bangladesh in 1984 and it has been going on since then. Land owners have been complaining about numerous errors and disputes in areas where surveys have been completed.
According to the 2004-amendment proposal of the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, land owners have been bearing the brunt of negligence and callousness on the part of field survey officials.
The land records and maps are riddled with numerous issues as some have the plots in the records, but the plots are missing in the map, and vice-versa.
Other errors include mistakes in the names of the land owners, and misspellings and mistakes in the measured size of land. The land tribunals were formed to settle all these issues.
Najim Uddin in Bogura's Shibganj upazila filed a case with the tribunal seeking a correction of the land records and mapping in 2005.
In the survey, a 3-acre plot of Najim Uddin's got registered to one Ahsan Habib. After a case handle over 11 years, the local land tribunal eventually ruled in favour of Najim Uddin and asked the concerned to correct the records and land map.
Subsequently, Ahsan Habib moved to the High Court to file a writ seeking a stay on the order. The HC in its ruling asked the authorities to explain within four weeks as to why the land tribunal judgement should not be scrapped.
"The hearing of the rule did not take place even after five years as the jurisdiction of the HC bench that had stayed the tribunal's order had changed," said Abdul Latif, Najim Uddin's lawyer at the HC.
The lawyer said he tried to shift the hearing to other HC benches, but to no avail. He also could not say when the rule would see a final hearing.
"Most land cases are facing a similar plight," said the HC lawyer.
Why are case settlements at tribunals so lengthy?
Shafique Ahmed, a senior lawyer and former law minister, pointed out that an inadequate number of judges is deterring tribunals from disposing of cases within one year.
"Local land records and survey offices, the land office and the deputy commissioner's office, often do not cooperate with the trials and implementing the judgements," said Shafique Ahmed.
"Moreover, the skill of the judges is also very crucial here. There is no government initiative to train them [lawyers] for the task," said the former minister, saying that these factors are contributing to the lengthy trials of land cases.
No appellate tribunal in 17 years
The inception of the Land Survey Tribunals was coupled with the formation of Land Survey Appellate Tribunals. But the appellate tribunals have not been formed in the 17 years since 2004.
"The amended State Acquisition and Tenancy Act-1950 stipulates the formation of appellate tribunals, forcing litigants to come to the HC challenging a land tribunal judgement," said Abdul Baset Majumder, a senior lawyer and former president of the Supreme Court Bar Association.
"Legal battles at the HC are expensive and sometimes lengthy. This could be averted if the appellate tribunals were established," he noted.
Abdul Baset Majumder believes the lack of appellate tribunals is contributing to court backlogs and the suffering of litigants.
The HC also ordered the forming of appellate tribunals in 90 days
The HC in a suo motu rule in 2015 asked the government why the land appellate tribunals were not being formed immediately.
On 25 July 2019, a landmark verdict was handed down by a larger HC bench that directed the law and land ministry to form land appellate tribunals within 90 days.
In observations of the verdict, the court said, "For the last 15 years, people have been deprived of their rights to file an appeal with appellate tribunals, which is a violation of basic rights as well as justice."
"The land minister and land secretary have treated the people inhumanely, cruelly, and unforgivably, by not appointing judges to the appellate tribunals. The minister and the secretary must take necessary action regarding the appointments," said the HC.
Yet another bureaucratic tangle?
According to the State Acquisition and Tenancy Act, High Court or Supreme Court judges were to lead the Land Survey Appellate Tribunals.
But after the HC order in 2019, the government moved to amend the provision for the appointment of appellate tribunal judges.
According to the move, the district judge's court would record the appeals, and joint district judges, senior assistant judges, and assistant judges, would hear the cases challenging tribunal orders.
The land ministry prepared a draft of the amendment and the law ministry parliamentary committee formed a sub-committee to finalise the draft.
But the draft has not seen the light of day so far.
Md Mokbul Hossain, chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on the Ministry of Land, said they have always been sincere about the speedy disposal of Land Survey Tribunal cases and the formation of appellate tribunals.
He said the land ministry submitted the draft to the law ministry in 2019, but it has not been finalised yet.
"Since the law ministry and the Supreme Court are responsible for the appointment of judges, the land ministry cannot do anything directly even if it wants to," he added.
Barrister Shamim Haider Patwary, chairman of the law ministry sub-committee formed to finalise the draft, said it was almost ready to be presented as a bill in Parliament.