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Informal Justice in Ethiopia

Role in justice delivery and potential for game-changing community justice services

December, 2021

Photo by melat 161 on Unsplash

Executive summary

Using data from three sources we quantify the market of the informal justice sector in Ethiopia and explore the transformative opportunities that informal justice can play in making People-centered justice a reality in Ethiopia. First, we look at the existing literature on informal justice in Ethiopia. Then we analyse data from the 2020 Justice Needs and Satisfaction survey. The last source of empirical data is a set of interviews with Ethiopian justice leaders.

Local elders are the most frequently used dispute resolution mechanism. Forty-three percent of the Ethiopians with legal problems who took active steps to resolve the problem engaged local elders. If we add other sources of help at the community level such as religious courts and religious authorities, the cumulative percentage rises to 46%. Extrapolation of the numbers leads to the conclusion that every year there are at least 3 million legal issues resolved by village elders.

Compared to other providers, the justice village elders resolved considerably more disputes. 64% of the problems that are referred to village elders are considered by the respondents to be completely resolved. All other providers combined resolved completely 39% of the disputes referred to them. More than half of the interventions of the local elders take the form of reconciliation. Informal justice mechanisms seek reconciliation through consensus, restoring the relationship between the parties and communal harmony. None of the other providers comes even close to such a high rate of using reconciliation to resolve problems.

Processes in which village elders participate are seen as considerably more procedurally fair compared to all other processes. Ethiopians are much more satisfied with the justice processes organised by village elders. Similarly to the dimensions of the processes for resolving legal issues, the users of justice perceive the outcomes of the village elders as better compared to the other providers of justice.

In the eyes of the interviewed justice leaders, informal justice processes are accessible, quick and trusted. One of the most important qualities of informal justice is that it emphasises the restoration of interpersonal and intercommunal relationships over retribution. Justice leaders, however, pointed out that informal justice in certain cases can produce harsh outcomes for minorities, women, children and other vulnerable groups.

Based on the analysis we conclude that Ethiopia has a great informal justice legacy which can be turned into more and better access to justice. We identify four strategies for transforming the potential of informal justice into game-changing community justice services: