The Justice of the Peace

Extremely poor families often live in isolation. They lead lives that may be parallel to those their wealthier neighbors lead, never touching the points of intersection that give a community the unity that defines it.

Many of them cannot send their children to school, and often those who can do not feel entitled to go to a parents’ meeting. They have no regular place at the local market because any little produce that they bring with them is too insignificant to require a fixed point of sale. They carry it around on their heads, or go straight to a wealthier retailer who will buy their load cheap. They don’t belong to community organizations. They would not feel comfortable at meetings. And no one would think to invite them to a celebration.

It’s not as though they are feared or avoided like lepers. It’s just that no one ever thinks of them.

So one of our principle social goals for CLM members is to help them become members of their communities. That is one of the reasons for establishing village assistance committees. Our members get used to attending meetings with friendly community leaders and even to speak up. The committee members’ work brings them to our members’ homes as visitors, a habit that sticks when the CLM members show the committee members that the visits are welcome. The relationships they will establish with these leaders as they start to develop their own economic means can protect them from returning to their former isolation, even as the livestock they accumulate can protect them from returning to extreme poverty when their livelihoods run into inevitable rough times.

So when a community has its own tools for managing problems and conflicts, we think it is to our members’ advantage for us to guide them towards those tools. That’s not to say that we never intervene strongly ourselves. Sometimes we do. (See: DeleGasyon.) But if we don’t have to manage things ourselves, we’d rather not. So when the case manager who serves the town of Trianon, which sits along the national highway in southern Mirebalais, explained the situation that had developed between two of the families he works with, I referred him to Judge Patrick, the justice of the peace.

The two families are neighbors. Dénius is the son of a woman named Osiane who was selected for the program. He became responsible for himself and his 14-year-old younger brother when Osiane died, probably of persistent malnutrition. Their father had died two years previously. Genel is his cousin, the husband of another woman we selected for the program. Dénius’s father and Genel’s mother were brother and sister. The mother is still alive.

Genel is about five years older than Dénius, a married man of 25. He’s also bigger and stronger than Dénius. Dénius may be 20, but he looks much younger. More important, Genel is tougher than Dénius, who is very sweet but probably lacking in what would be useful grit.

Not that he doesn’t try to stick up for himself: When Genel went into the land his father left him and lopped a fruit-laden branch off a mango tree to make charcoal, he complained, enough apparently to annoy Genel. Genel finally explained that he had been asked to make the charcoal by his mother, so that Dénius should complain to the mother instead. Dénius complained again when Genel cut down a tree on another plot of land that Dénius believed that his father had left him – Genel thought it had been left to the whole family by their grandfather – and made enough noise to make Genel angry and threatening.

Dénius then complained to Michel, their common case manager, who decided to sit down with them both. In the course of the conversation, Genel became angry again. He finally said, in front of Michel, that if he came across Dénius when the moment was right he would cut him to pieces. That was when Michel came to me.

Fortunately, Trianon had just been assigned a courthouse and a justice of the peace. Fortunately again, the justice of the peace is Judge Patrick, who had previously been assigned to a court in Tit Montay, where he became very familiar with CLM. So we were assured of a sympathetic hearing.

I had Michel help Dénius file a complaint based on the threat to his life. This would require the court to send Genel a manda envitasyon, something like a formal demand that he present himself in court for a hearing, but much less serious than a warrant for his arrest would be.

Judge Patrick’s sympathetic understanding was important, because our goals for the hearing were complex. Both Dénius and Genel are part of CLM. We needed to do what we could to help Dénius feel save and to clarify the land ownership issues that invited the conflict. We also wanted Genel to see that it was, for us, simply a matter of using a fair process to clear things up, and that we continue to see him as part of our CLM family – every bit as much a part of it as his more vulnerable younger cousin is.

Judge Patrick was wonderful, talking and listening respectfully to both men. He got Genel to admit that he had been hotheaded and to agree that he must manage any conflicts with Dénius in some other way.

He also identified the source of the problem as their different understandings of the way the land was left to them, and we were lucky enough to have a satisfactory way to define things. Their aunt, their parents’ older sister, came to the hearing. She is a childless older woman who has more-or-less moved in with Dénius and his brother, Amison. She keeps quiet and manages her affairs separately from them, though they share what they have with her and she shares with them. They speak to her with gentleness and respect, and she seems fond of them.

Judge Patrick asked her what she knew about the land in question. Did it come to Dénius as an inheritance from his father or did her father leave it in common to them all? There were no papers of any kind to establish the old man’s intentions, but the land is between a small garden that belongs to her sister and another that belongs to her. What, if anything, did she know?

The aunt had a simple answer: She remembered that her brother once told her that their father had given him that piece of land. He had never cleared it for planting because he wanted to leave it as a source of lumber in case he and his children needed it to build a home.

Her declaration satisfied Judge Patrick, and it satisfied Genel as well. He said he was sorry, that he hadn’t understood things that way, and that he’d stay off the land from now on.

Dénius now asked the judge to make Genel promise to leave him alone. Genel started to get angry when he heard this, so that’s when we felt we had to intervene. Genel had already said three times that he’d avoid problems with Dénius, but Dénius was still scared.

I was sitting next to Genel, and as he started to speak I held his hand and asked him to let me respond. I said that Genel had already promised in front of the judge that he would not bully Dénius. To continue to ask for guarantees was to doubt his honesty. And no one had shown any reason to do that. I’ve gotten very close to Dénius, so when I said this, he relented.

Then it was time for Judge Patrick’s final maneuver. He wrote an agreement of reconciliation into the courtroom’s official record. There were a number of points in the agreement, but the central one was that Genel and Dénius would agree to act as brothers. Dénius would look to Genel as and older brother for protection and advice, Genel would protect and advise him. Judge Patrick made them sign the agreement and then hug. All in front of a crowded little courtroom. It was not the warmest of embraces, but I think it did what Judge Patrick wanted it to do.

On the way out, I pulled Genel aside for a chat. On one hand, I wanted him to understand that we would hold him to his agreements. On the other hand, I wanted to communicate my friendship towards him. For various reasons, I have grown very close to Dénius. I haven’t with Genel. But I wanted Genel to see that our team is committed to helping them both. We talked mostly about his very beautiful little girl and about one of the goats that the program had given his wife, which seemed a little sick. I also asked him to contact me if there was any more trouble between him and Dénius, and he said that he would.

Using the legal system in Trianon gave us a way to protect a scared young man from another who is stronger and tougher than he. But it also made their conflict, and its resolution, a part of the formal comings and goings of the community that surrounds them both. Making it a public matter served to bring both young men farther into the public realm as well.