Kris derives from the Greek term "κρίοη" (judgement) and denotes the traditional jurisdiction of the Vlach-Roma and in particular of the Kalderaš. There were or still are similar institutions within different groupings but these institutions have never achieved a similar relevance. It happens that certain groups adapt the jurisdiction of the Kalderaš and anchor it into their own traditional socio-culture. The Swedish Drzara who originally come from Serbia have taken over the kris from the Swedish Kalderaš at the beginning of the 1990's. Consequently, today cases have to be dealt with that date decades ago.
Characteristic features of the Roma jurisdiction
A kris represents the Highest Court, collective wisdom and social consciousness simultaneously. It is the highest legal and moral authority and therefore the most important control organ over all areas of life. Men exclusively form the decision-making bodies. They consist of one or more judges – krisari, krisatoré or krisnitori – who belong to different vici if possible. [Traditional socio-organisation] A chairman decides whose task it is to lead the kris. The preconditions for a judge are rich life experience, to be appreciated within the group, to have an impartial attitude, and a detailed knowledge of the customs and traditions. Women are not allowed to become judges. They are heard in a kris only if they are directly involved in a conflict and act as testimony or as the accused.
In contrast to the magnificent courts of non-Roma, the Roma do not mind where a kris takes place. It can take place in the open, in a tent or in an apartment. Before, wooden cases or buckets covered with boards were taken to sit down on. Jan Yoors who grew up within the Lovara community writes the following, "All this did not restrict the dignity of the kris. The standing of the judges was based on their inner power and their insight and did not require any exterior sign of power or material richness."
Kris-meetings are a public event and accessible to every Rom of the group. Non-Roma are not allowed to participate in a kris-meeting. All decisions taken are binding, it is not possible to appeal. If, due to the complexity of a case, it is impossible to take an immediate decision, the pronouncement of the sentence is postponed to a later moment.
Since Roma jurisdiction lacks institutions for the implementation of decisions (e.g. executive body), the passing of sentences depends on whether they are capable of winning a majority. If this is the case the sentenced person has to bear an enormous pressure. The person can flee the punishment only if he/she leaves the group. Within the Austrian Kalderaš it is furthermore usual that both parties of the dispute deposit a bail before the negotiation starts. This bail is retained in case the sanctions imposed are not complied with.
A Romani-kris does accept neither a public prosecutor nor an attorney. It is up to the judges to take over their functions and side with one of the parties. In this context the rhetoric capacity and the vivid language of the judges play a quite decisive role, and is integrated into the pronouncement of the sentence. It is the task of the chairman to balance the different points of view and to sift out the decisive points.
Cases and punishments
A kris is called only when needed to settle serious disputes, when taboos have been broken and in order to define punishments. Less serious offences are resolved out of court by a divano (conversation, "round table"). This kind of conflict resolution is also found in Muslim Roma groups. The Turkish Sepečides ask a council of elders in the case of disputes. The following formula of speech is used:
Ka-kidas i bare Romen, so ka-phenen o bare Roma.
"We will gather the old Roma, what will the old Roma speak."
A kris deals with inner group cases, the conflicts between Roma and Gadže are not within their area of competence and are left to the Gadže courts.
"Serious violations" of the rules of the Kalderaš are considered as betrayal of their own group, murder and theft within the members of the group, relationships of women with non-Roma as well as serious offences against purity rituals.
What kind of punishment is imposed? In the majority of cases fines are imposed the amount of which depends on the seriousness of the offence. It is usual that the winner of a trial puts at least part of the money he gets towards a concluding party for the group, as he/she should also care that the atmosphere of harmony and cohesion is maintained within the group. The most serious punishment that is imposed by the krisatori is a temporary or complete expulsion from the group and all its related consequences. The community defines the professional as well as the social and the cultural identity of every individual. Therefore, an expulsion from the group results in terrible consequences for the person affected.
The famous Polish Roma poet Papusza was considered as mahrime by the kris and consequently she was expelled from the group forever. She was accused of complicity with the Gadžo Jerzy Ficowski who in 1953 in the first edition of his book "Wieviel Trauer und Wege. Zigeuner in Polen" supported or had to support the authority’s policy regarding the settlement of the Roma. Papusza was avoided by the group and spent the remaining 34 years of her life in complete seclusion. [Gadžo]
Jan Yoors reported that from time to time the judges imposed supernatural punishing measures. If an accused was found not guilty although there were numerous evidences against him the judges could impose curses – armaja – on the accused of which the effect was undoubted. The aim of this was to ensure that the accused would tell the truth due to his fear of the curses. If he did not then they trusted in trial by ordeal.
The relevance of the kris has decreased in the course of time. The Kalderaš however still attribute to the kris the above-mentioned relevance and it also serves as the highest authority of control. Nowadays, referring to the Kalderaš, partnership related questions are dealt with, and it is not unusual that the intimate life of the female or male accused may be intruded. These cases are also sanctioned with fines.