Colonial Shadows: The British Impact on the Legal System of Bangladesh

Repoter : News Room
Published: 6 June, 2024 11:35 am

Md Badhon Mollik: More than seven decades after gaining independence, Bangladesh continues to grapple with the remnants of its colonial past. British laws, entrenched during the colonial period, remain integral to the country’s legal framework. While some of these laws provide structure and continuity, others appear outdated, highlighting the need for legal reforms that resonate with the needs of modern Bangladesh.

The British Empire’s rule over the Indian subcontinent left an indelible mark on the region’s legal system. When Bangladesh emerged as an independent nation in 1971, it inherited a plethora of colonial laws. These laws, primarily designed to serve British interests, have since been adapted to varying degrees, yet many retain their original essence.

Existing British Laws in Bangladesh

Several British-era statutes continue to govern key aspects of Bangladeshi life. For instance, the Penal Code of 1860, the Evidence Act of 1872, and the Code of Civil Procedure of 1908 remain in force. These laws were foundational in establishing a rule of law during colonial times and have contributed to the legal stability of post-independence Bangladesh.

The Penal Code of 1860, in particular, is a comprehensive criminal code that addresses a wide range of offenses and punishments. Despite its age, it is still the cornerstone of criminal law in Bangladesh. Similarly, the Evidence Act of 1872, which outlines the rules of evidence, continues to guide judicial proceedings.

Despite their foundational role, these colonial laws are increasingly seen as impediments to progress. Critics argue that many of these laws are outdated and fail to address contemporary issues effectively. For example, the laws do not sufficiently cover modern technological crimes, human rights issues, or environmental concerns.

Legal experts and human rights activists have been vocal about the need for reform. They argue that laws such as the Sedition Act, which dates back to the colonial era, are often misused to stifle dissent and curb freedom of expression. The application of such laws is seen as a threat to democracy and human rights in the country.

Negative Impact on Modern Governance

The persistence of colonial laws has several adverse effects on modern governance in Bangladesh. Firstly, the outdated legal provisions can lead to injustices and inefficiencies in the judicial system. For example, the Code of Civil Procedure, which was designed for a different era, often results in protracted legal battles, causing significant delays in justice delivery.

Moreover, the colonial mindset embedded in these laws sometimes conflicts with the democratic values and human rights principles enshrined in the Constitution of Bangladesh. This dissonance can undermine public trust in the legal system and hinder the development of a more equitable society.

Penal Code, 1860

Despite being a cornerstone of Bangladesh’s criminal justice system, the Penal Code of 1860 contains provisions that are misaligned with contemporary societal values. For instance, the harsh penalties for blasphemy and homosexuality reflect outdated views on human rights and equality, clashing with modern principles of justice and human dignity.

Code of Civil Procedure, 1908

The Code of Civil Procedure (CPC) of 1908, though comprehensive, is often criticized for being overly complex and time-consuming. The procedural steps required can be lengthy, leading to significant delays in the delivery of justice. This delay contradicts the principle that “justice delayed is justice denied.”

Evidence Act, 1872

The Evidence Act of 1872 does not adequately address modern advancements in technology. It often falls short in providing clear guidelines for the admissibility of digital evidence and other contemporary forms of proof, thereby hindering fair and accurate court proceedings in an era of rapid technological change.

Contract Act, 1872

The Contract Act of 1872, while foundational, is sometimes inadequate for addressing the needs of modern commerce, especially in the context of e-commerce and digital contracts. The act’s provisions can be vague and insufficient for dealing with issues arising from digital transactions, creating uncertainty in commercial dealings.

Transfer of Property Act, 1882

The Transfer of Property Act of 1882 is often seen as cumbersome and outdated. The complexity and lengthy processes involved in property transactions can lead to disputes and dissatisfaction among the populace. The law’s inability to efficiently resolve modern property issues contributes to legal and administrative challenges.

Limitations Act, 1908

The Limitations Act of 1908 is sometimes overly rigid and unreasonable. Legitimate claims are often barred simply because they exceed the prescribed time limits, denying justice to individuals with valid grievances. This strict enforcement of time limits can be seen as unjust and contrary to the principles of fairness.


There is a growing consensus among legal scholars and policymakers that comprehensive legal reform is essential. The government has initiated efforts to modernize some aspects of the legal system, but progress has been slow. A thorough review and overhaul of colonial-era laws are necessary to align them with contemporary realities and the aspirations of the Bangladeshi people.

Legal reform should focus on repealing outdated statutes, introducing new laws to address modern challenges, and ensuring that the legal system promotes justice, equality, and human rights. This process will require political will, expert input, and broad-based public support.

The legacy of British colonial rule continues to shape the legal landscape of Bangladesh. While some colonial laws have provided a stable foundation, many are now obsolete and hinder the country’s progress. Addressing these issues through comprehensive legal reform is crucial for Bangladesh to fully realize its potential as a modern, democratic nation.

As Bangladesh continues its journey towards development, shedding the vestiges of its colonial past and forging a legal system that reflects its contemporary needs and values will be key to ensuring justice, equality, and prosperity for all its citizens.

Writer is a Student, Department of Law, Bangladesh Open University.