ECSAS 2023 – Turin 26-29 July

Courts and ‘Najayaz’ clerks: Roles and relations within the formal judicial system of Bihar


Anushka - Indian Institute of Management Calcutta, Public Policy and Management, Kolkata, India


36 – Interrogating Deviance and ‘Crime’ in Colonial and Postcolonial South Asia


With its detailed laws and procedures, the judiciary may be perceived as the ultimate arbiter of what is ‘formal’ and, thereby, ‘legal’ as differentiated from the ‘informal’ or ‘custom.’ Instead of a mere reliance on established laws and procedures, actors utilize a set of practices embedded in local settings, often beyond what is expounded in official documents. The ethnographic study suggests that the presence of ‘najayaz’ (literally, illegitimate), an unofficial staff in the lower courts of the state of Bihar (India), is one of the compelling evidences of the existence of informality within judicial institutions. What someone is called, what they have the authority to accomplish, and what they are capable of if they are properly approached are highly unpredictable in lower courts. The study highlights the porousness between the ‘social’ and the ‘legal,’ and this incessant traffic between the two explains the presence of such ‘shadowy’ characters like ‘najayaz.’ It elucidates how the existence of ‘najayaz’ is both legitimized and condemned in the everyday court. This paper contributes to the sociological understanding of the legal system – as a system ‘manned’ by people than merely as a system of abstract rules and procedures. While underscoring the blurring of the distinction between formal and informal structures, it attempts to advance the discourses of access to justice in everyday judicial processes, especially in the context of the lower judiciary.