CASE

Houses of Justice

Photo by Casa de Justicia

Key fact and figures

Year of establishment
1995
Scope of service/ Type of justice problems addressed
Family, neighbour, crime, money, public services
Geographical scope
Country-wide (Colombia) – partial coverage
Legal entity
Part of the government – private service providers also included
Regulatory embeddedness
Part of the government
Number of affiliated staff members
Varies per house, depending on services offered
Number of cases resolved
+20 million
Citizen satisfaction
High satisfaction with access, less satisfaction with actual solution of problems
Citizen impact reporting score
Costs of services for citizens (average and range)
none
Average processing time
From days to a few months, depending on case
Annual Budget
Varies per house, depending on services offered

Introduction

The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) supported several programmes in Latin America and the Caribbean region to promote rule of law and democracy in the last decade of the 20th century.  One such programme was the Casas de Justicia program that was implemented by the Colombian Government, with support from USAID, in 1995. Casa de Justicia is a multi-door, legal information and community dispute resolution centre with an objective of meeting justice needs of low-income communities. It was launched as a pilot project in two large low-income neighborhoods in Bogotá (Ciudad Bolívar) and Cali (Aguablanca).  Over the years, the program expanded into 158 venues in 132 municipalities throughout the country. The main objectives of the programme are:

Multiple reasons make this program interesting for this issue brief: (i) Its long duration (25+ years). (ii) The program’s large scale in terms of both geographical reach and number of users—between 70 and 80% of the general public in Colombia knows of the program (La Rota, p. 174; DeJusticia, P. 78). (iii) Its focus on underserved populations—Casas de Justicia are located mostly in low-income neighbourhoods throughout the country. (iv) The program’s diverse settings of implementation (given large socio-economic and cultural differences across Colombian regions, as well as its multiple justice delivery goals and available services across cities, which enable comparison of service models within one general framework. And finally, (v) the availability of data about the program.

Program description

The World Bank’s comprehensive review of access to justice in Colombia describes the program as follows (Varela and Pearsons, p. 175): 

The casas de justicia are multiagency venues that provide information on rights, legal advice, and conflict resolution services. A variety of conciliation options are offered, together with administrative and some formal justice services (Decree 1447 of 2000). Since 1995, the Ministry of the Interior and Justice, with support from USAID, has constructed a system of casas de justicia comprising some 81 houses [158 as of Oct. 2020]. Originally designed for cities with populations in excess of 100,000, casas de justicia provide rapid solutions to everyday interpersonal disputes and neighborhood conflicts. Other issues they address include personal identity verification, domestic and sexual violence, and criminal cases of lesser gravity. Services for displaced populations are also provided, and matters of institutional abuse are considered.

The purpose of the casas de justicia is to facilitate “one-stop” access to legal help for poor people in marginalized or conflictive neighborhoods, and to promote peaceful-dispute resolution and social cohesion. Although they vary in design, casas de justicia incorporate local prosecutors, public defenders, municipal human rights officers, municipal neighborhood affairs units, comisarías de familia, legal aid specialists, social workers, and psychologists in a variety of conciliation services. Many justice houses also include other entities such as nongovernmental women’s organizations, youth mediation services, children’s playrooms, and university law clinics, and personnel such as forensic doctors, community police officers, and representatives for ethnic-communities.

Casas de justicia eliminate or reduce common access barriers and bring justice closer to the people, both physically and culturally. Procedures are free of charge, easy to arrange, and informal. Legal representation (having a lawyer present) is not required. Disputes are resolved in a timely manner. However, the sustainability of the houses is dependent on the continued participation of various institutions from the justice sector, some of which have insufficient staff to assign to small town projects; municipal political will to assume justice and conflict resolution commitments; and municipal budgets for justice services. Unfortunately, all of these factors are compounded when justice houses are located in small, war-torn areas.”

Financing strategy

Developing a sustainable financial model is essential to maintain consistency in the quality of services delivered. Casa de Justicia receives funds from several channels, including national and local governmental entities in Colombia. It has secured partnerships with the legal clinics of local universities and local chambers of commerce, to provide in-site conciliation and legal advice services to users. Municipalities that host the houses of justice are also required to contribute to it but evidence indicates that they do not always prioritise it. 

Similarly, various governmental agencies that implement the programme participate in it voluntarily. As a result, there is a lack of consistency in their contributions to the programme. This leads to situations in which, as one of the officers involved told Botero, “if there is coffee one day, sugar may be missing” (figuratively speaking).  Since the primary target of the Houses of Justice are marginalized communities, all services are provided free-of-charge—user contributions are not present. 

Despite securing stable public-private partnerships and receiving support from bilateral aid agencies, Casas de Justicia faces a shortfall in funds due to inconsistency in municipal and administrative support. 

Monitoring outcomes and implementing evidence-based solutions

Evidence indicates that Casas de Justicia has not used outcome monitoring to improve the interventions of the programme as a whole, nor introduced evidence-based interventions. Organisations such as DeJusticia, USAID, Ministerio de Justicia and Colprensa have conducted assessments of the programme and there is some anecdotal evidence and general surveys on user satisfaction. However, multiple studies (Casas de Justicia de Medellin; DeJusticia; USAID; Programa Nacional de Casas de Justicia y Convivencia Ciudadana) indicate that the programme’s information system is deficient and not generally used. Each house captures data on cases coming in, but very little information is available on whether disputes were actually solved.

The lack of proper outcome monitoring prevents evidence-based adjustment of services—since neither the houses nor the individual agencies regularly follow situations of conflict over time, they do not know whether, how and to what extent, a particular justice situation evolves into a downward spiral of conflict that ultimately leads to violence. Moreover, the weaknesses that the existing studies identified have not been addressed.

The programme has also remained essentially unchanged since its formalization under Decree 1477 of 2000. Instead of basing decisions on careful, evidence-based determination of needs and results in the community, decisions on resource allocation, prioritization of cases, and expansion and reduction of services (through the construction of new houses or through adding or removing agencies involved in existing ones), are made on the basis of purely bureaucratic considerations or on the good intentions of government officers (DeJusticia; Lina Buchely et al).

Impact

In terms of dispute resolution rate, a few studies suggest that about 50% of disputes are resolved at the Casas de Justicia. Comparing the performance of the programme to that of the alternative – the formal court system – anecdotal evidence and general surveys on user satisfaction suggest that Casas de Justicia is generally regarded as better. The program’s informal approach (without the need for a lawyer) makes it generally faster than the court system, and in those Houses where there are courts (e.g., small claims courts at Ciudad Bolivar), some evidence suggests that proceedings are handled more efficiently and speedily than in regular courts.  Some studies have found the program’s significant influence on shaping social representations of justice among target communities, with meaningful impacts on dispute resolution practices (Navarro Carrascal and Diafeiria). 

Anecdotal evidence collected by Botero in several houses across the country, suggest that while some users left the house with a sense of having received an answer to their needs, others felt that the authorities “did more to confuse them than to actually help them”. Even so, it is difficult to ascertain the programme’s impact in a holistic way, given the absence of a proper outcome monitoring system and weaknesses in the programme’s  existing data collection and analysis system. 

Furthermore, the uneven participation among diverse agencies across houses around the country and unequal commitment from local authorities, makes it extremely difficult to assess whether existing data on justice delivery at the houses of justice are nothing more than “people listened to” (or case files moved from one desk to the other without real impact on people’s lives), as Bucheli, Solano and Recalde suggest, or whether these figures effectively represent over 20 million justice needs actually met, as the Ministry of Justice claims.  

Evidence on the program’s effectiveness in rural areas remains disputed. A significant percentage of violence and crime in Colombia takes place in rural settings. Not only the drug and guerrilla conflicts are overwhelmingly rural, but according to Colombian´s National Police (2019), many crimes are also more prevalent in rural areas, including burglary and kidnappings. It is unclear whether the gentle-hand approach to justice of the houses of justice model (which is largely centered around ADR options) is effective to address the most pressing justice needs of the rural population. 

The capacity and effectiveness of administrative agencies and procedures to resolve disputes in rural setting, where the State presence in Colombia has been traditionally weak (García Villegas), is also limited—dispute resolution services in large segments of the country have been effectively delivered for decades by guerrilla and paramilitary groups. Casas de Justicia does not seem a viable option to address the most pressing injustice that people suffer in rural settings.   

Finally, one highly popular component of the program’s outreach efforts is the mobile Houses of Justice, where the various participating institutions deliver justice off site, at various neighbourhoods or in rural areas. Several experts consulted by Botero consider this kind of program is extremely difficult to sustain under the current model and level of resources, and thus not effective. One expert called it “justicia golondrina” (swallow justice), after the bird that only comes from time to time, without leaving any meaningful footprint.  Moreover, some suggest that it may be counterproductive, as it creates unreasonable expectations of access among the public that turn into frustration for lack of follow up. 

Scaling

While assessments of the program diverge, the weight of the evidence indicates that the program has been generally effective in addressing the needs of the most vulnerable urban population. Overall, the most prevalent use of the Casas de Justicia program according to DeJusticia, were in family disputes, criminal matters, document petitions, conflicts related to leases and public utilities, employment disputes among others (DeJusticia, p. 54).  

According to the programme’s national director at the Ministry of Justice (interview, October 8, 2020), with 158 venues in 132 municipalities throughout the country, the program has reached about 70% of its target population. Given that about three quarters of Colombians live in these cities, in terms of reach, the program has been successful. According to the Colombian Ministry of Justice, central authority in charge of the general direction of the Casas de Justicia program, 15 to 20 million cases have been handled by this multi-door, community dispute resolution centers, from its foundation in 1995(3). (DeJusticia, p. 77-78; Ministerio de Justicia, 2013). 

According to the Ministry of Justice, close to 50% of all petitions for conciliation or redress at the houses of justice during the year 2013, were filed by people belonging to the poorest sextile of the Colombian population (“estrato 1”), and another 45% by people belonging to the second and third lowest sextile (Dejusticia, p. 55-56), and this trend remains generally unchanged until today. This means that the program has overwhelmingly served the low- and middle-income urban population, as it was originally intended. 

A critical element of this analysis is the justice delivery gap in the Casas de Justicia program: While the numbers vary across sources, it appears that the program is widely known and highly popular among the general public, but not really widely used. (Awareness 70-80% – Overall use 2%. Use among the poor: 10%.).  Moreover, according to DeJusticia and La Rota, Lalinde and Upimny (2013, p. 107), by 2013 only 1.8% of the cases handled by any sort of administrative authorities were actually resolved by the Casas de Justicia program. This can be attributed to the lack of consistency of service delivery (independence of political winds at the national, regional and municipal level) and issues of financial sustainability. As a result, critics of the programme call it a highly institutionalized placebo which seeks to defuse neighbour grievances among marginalized communities rather than to actually resolve them (Bucheli, Solano and Recalde).

Integration with the formal justice system

Experts and researchers in the justice sector are increasingly recognising the importance of integrating the formal and informal justice system. In the case of Casa de Justicia, participation of the formal judicial branch remains relatively marginal throughout the country today. Many of the Houses include crime reporting desks of the national prosecutor’s office (Fiscalia General de la Nacion). While some of them (e.g., Ciudad Bolivar) include two small claims courts as part of the services offered, in most of Casas de Justicia the most common type of state agencies present are administrative agencies, mostly at the municipal level (e.g., the office of the municipal ombudsman; the Police Inspector or the community development office). Agencies at the national level such as work and labour inspectors from the Ministry of labor, a delegate of the National Registry office or the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (minors defence agency), are also commonly present. (Ministry of Justice, 2012, p. 12)(6). 

Enabling environment

Casa de Justicia, being a government-led programme, received significant support from regulatory and financial systems at the time of its formation. They have become the default avenue for handling conflicts at low-income neighbourhoods throughout the country’s urban centres. However, government-led status has not safeguarded the program from shortfalls in funding and lack of inter-agency coordination. Interviews with senior officials and experts suggest that Casas de Justicia needs more support from regulatory systems in terms of planning and inter-agency coordination to improve service delivery and more funds and logistical support from the administration to expand into rural areas. 

Critical success factors

Lessons learnt

Lessons learnt from the experience of setting up Uitelkaar are:

Methodology

This paper is based on:  Botero, Juan Carlos, “CASE STUDY – Casas de Justicia in Colombia. December 2020, which is available at: https://dashboard.hiil.org/trend-report-2021-delivering-justice/case-study-casas-de-justicia-colombia/ 

Botero’s study was based on extensive literature review, semi-structured interviews with government officers and users, and field visits to several houses of justice.

Authors

This case has been developed by Juan Botero with suggestions from the HiiL team.

Justice Dashboard

Justice Dashboard