The snake bone case: Law, custom, and justice in a Papua New Guinea Village Court

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Abstract

One of the outcomes of judgmental administrative attitudes toward indigenous praxis in colonial Papua New Guinea was a convention that an antagonistic relationship existed between European law and 'native custom'. By the end of the colonial period the defence of 'custom' had become part of an anti-colonial polemic among indigenous intellectuals and politicians. The Village Court system was established in this rhetorical climate. Its mission, reinforced in legislation, included the favouring of 'custom' in the dispensation of justice. Subsequent academic and journalistic commentaries on the development of the Village Court system have perpetuated a binary notion of the relationship between law and custom, whether portraying it as antagonistic or articulatory. This article focuses on a single case from a Port Moresby village court, involving an accusation of attempted sorcery. The case raises questions not only about the validity of the discursive law/custom dichotomy but about the notion of custom itself in the context of the dispensation of justice in contemporary Papua New Guinea. It is suggested that in village court praxis, the notion of custom serves the exploitation of village court officers as cheap labour in the justice system.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)50-63
Number of pages14
JournalOceania
Volume67
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Sep 1996

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