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What Is "Gypsy Court"?

Photo: A handshake

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Photograph by National Geographic Channels/ Shadow Stick Productions

By Patrick J. Kiger


While Romani people lack a central government or a written set of laws, they do have a judicial system for solving internal disputes and grievances among them. Ranging from divorces and business disputes to accusations that a Romani has violated the community’s standards for spiritual purity, the court oversees a variety of disputes. The first step in conflict resolution generally is a divano, an informal meeting of the chiefs of various families, in which mediators try to come up with a solution that the adversaries can accept.

The kris, whose name comes from the Greek word for judgment, is a tribunal composed of male elders from different families who are chosen by the band’s elders on the basis of their life experience and impartiality, as well as their knowledge of Romani tradition and customs. The tribunal also has a chairman who runs the proceeding and ensures that it is fair. A new tribunal is selected for each case, and the plaintiff and defendant must agree on the selection of judges. Generally, there are at least five judges on the panel, though in the U.S., some cases have empaneled as many as 25 jurists.

As a traditionally migratory people, the Romani don’t have courthouses in which to hold their tribunals. Instead, by custom, a kris can be held anywhere from an apartment to a tent. The hearings are considered a public event, and any Romani person can attend, though gadze, or non-Romanis, are not allowed to participate.

Unlike most nations’ courts, Romani judges don’t have law libraries full of statutes and precedents to guide them in their jurisprudence. Instead, Romani laws are part of the culture’s oral tradition, and like Romani poetry, it can be both flexible and improvisational. Even a Romani chieftain may not know all of the Romani laws, and they traditionally have been kept secret from outsiders.

Cases are tried in a kris very differently than they are in American-style courtrooms. There is no prosecutor or plaintiff’s attorney, and no defense counsel either. Instead, the judges—who are expected to be fair, but not required to be impartial—are free to take sides and advocate for one or another of the parties in a case. The chairman, however, is expected to remain impartial and sift through the different points of view and evidence, so that the judges can come to the right decision. And unlike American courts where a jury must come to a unanimous verdict, in a kris a majority of judges is enough to decide a case.

One similarity between the kris and American courts is that in both, witnesses are required to swear oaths to tell the truth. However, Romani witnesses, instead of swearing “so help me God,” may be required to swear an oath to the dead ancestors of the families involved in the case.

Another key difference is that once the judges rule, there are no appeals; all decisions are final and binding. A person generally can avoid consequences only by leaving the community. To prevent that from happening, in some European tribunals, both parties in a case are required to post a bail before the proceeding, which can be forfeited if they don’t comply with the ruling.

In past centuries, Romani courts sometimes decreed harsh penalties against those convicted of a crime, and sometimes even imposed death sentences. Today, however, judges typically impose less stringent sanctions, such as fines or banishment from the community. A person who is banished is totally cut off; members of the clan may not share a meal with him or her, or even touch the person, and when the guilty party dies, no one will hold a funeral or bury him or her. Sometimes, banishment is imposed temporarily; if a Romani person steals from another Romani, for example, the thief may be banished, until he or she repays the victim.