During this session, the National Council is expected to debate the Civil Liability Bill, with a particular focus on the contested articles. As Bhutan moves towards becoming a more advanced nation, responsibility for both public agencies and private persons becomes increasingly vital in order to ensure better organisation. 

Civil liability, or tort law, is a body of law that aims to compensate injured parties, deter harmful behavior, establish accountability, and provide corrective justice. It originated in the West hundreds of years ago and has evolved to address a wide range of harms, including physical, emotional, and economic losses. Most countries have adopted the tort either through enabling legislation or through case laws. 

Public authorities, including government agencies, departments, and officials, play an important role in the functioning of society and the provision of public services, particularly in countries such as Bhutan, where the state provides almost everything for free, from medical services to public infrastructure construction and education. They generally enjoy a privilege known as sovereign immunity, which affords them certain insulation from accountability as public organisations. Their actions or omissions, however, might cause harm or injury to persons, presenting issues of accountability and liability. For example, incidents such as a woman’s death during the Covid-19 pandemic, possibly due to the negligence of responsible public servants, wall collapses resulting in deaths, or incidents involving fallen electric poles resulting in injuries and deaths have occurred with no compensation provided thus far.

This Bill will limit sovereign immunity by requiring public officials to have a “duty of care” and to act responsibly to defend citizens’ rights and well-being. There will be repercussions if you violate this duty. Misfeasance will also be covered by the statute, which occurs when public officials or entities abuse their position, causing injury through actions such as unjust arrests or purposeful neglect. It will assist impacted persons in seeking redress and holding public officials accountable, thereby encouraging transparency and accountability. Making “public authorities liable incentivizes responsible behaviour, due diligence, and prioritising citizens’ well-being.” 

Thus, enactment of a comprehensive civil liability law in Bhutan holds tremendous potential to benefit countless generations of Bhutanese people. This crucial legislation not only promises to establish a sense of accountability within government agencies but also aims to protect consumers from the adverse consequences of various defects, deficiencies, and lapses by various agencies. It seeks to “create a legal framework that holds responsible parties liable for their actions, thereby ensuring that individuals are not left to bear the burden of harm caused by others.”

However, while the legislature develops such a law, it is critical to evaluate the capabilities of governmental agencies and tortfeasors to fairly compensate victims. Bhutan’s state is established on the concepts of a welfare society, emphasising its residents’ well-being and happiness. It is difficult for the state since it lacks the necessary resources and mechanisms to compensate persons affected by civil responsibility cases.

As a result, legislators must strike a balance between protecting individual individuals’ rights, preserving society’s welfare, and compensating victims. This broad civil liability law should not only be aspirational, but also practical, enabling for a system in which justice is delivered and victims are adequately compensated.

Sonam Tshering

Lawyer, Thimphu

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are author’s own.