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4. How is the performance of traditional justice perceived by the users of justice?

Informal Justice in Ethiopia / 4. How is the performance of traditional justice perceived by the users of justice?

Photo by Moti Abebe on Unsplash


Ethiopians seek resolution of their problems from various people and formal or informal institutions. On average they involve 1.7 such sources in the resolution of their problems. We did ask “Which of these sources was most useful in the resolution of the problem”. Below we compare the resolution rates of village elders compared to other providers.

Compared to other providers the justice village elders resolved considerably more disputes.[1] 64% of the problems referred to village elders are considered by the respondents to be completely resolved. All other providers combined completely resolved 39% of the disputes referred to them. There are significant differences in the proportion of unresolved disputes. Only 6% of the disputes referred to village elders are considered to be unresolved and the respondent does not see a resolution in sight. 18% of the issues brought to other providers are unresolved. Similarly, there is a gap in the issues which are in process of resolution. 26% of the disputes brought to village elders are ongoing whereas the proportion for the other providers is 39%. Apparently, the village elders are considerably more effective in resolving the issues that people bring to them.

This finding has significant implications and needs to be explored further. One possible explanation of the better performance of the village elders is that, because they are reachable and accessible, they deal with relatively less complicated issues. To test this assumption we compare the mean impact score [2]. The comparison indeed indicates that when village elders are perceived as the most useful mechanisms, the impact score is lower, meaning that the problem is less serious [3]. The mean impact score of problems dealt with by village elders is .49 and the mean impact score of the combined other mechanisms is .54.

We also checked the data to see if the different types of problems have an impact on the resolution rates of the village elders. Controlling for impact score and for the type of the problem there is strong evidence that village elders produce better results even when the impact of the problem has been held constant [4]. What this means is that village elders are indeed more successful in resolving legal issues and that the more impactful legal issues are less likely to be resolved.

In terms of categories of legal problems, the data shows that in certain categories the village elders are significantly more likely to deliver better resolutions [5]. In land issues, domestic violence, disputes between neighbours and family problems the village elders deliver significantly more resolutions.

Quality of processes

The survey asked every respondent who took active steps to resolve the legal issue about the perceived fairness of the dispute resolution process. We remind here that all sorts of processes are included into this overview — adjudicative and reconciliatory, structured and unstructured, bilateral and multilateral.[6] Processes in which village elders participate and were considered as the most useful provider are seen as considerably more procedurally fair compared to all other processes. In each and every dimension there is a sizeable and statistically significant gap between village elders and other mechanisms. The gap is always in the advantage of the village elders. In other words — Ethiopians are considerably more satisfied with the processes organised by village elders. In such processes people think they have more voice, their voices are better heard, the village elders receive better marks on their neutrality. Not surprisingly, when we ask – Would you trust this source in the future, village elders gather more trust.

Quality of outcomes

Similarly to the dimensions of the processes for resolving legal issues, Ethiopians perceive the outcomes of the village elders as better than when compared to the other providers of justice. From a distributive point of view, the outcomes of village elders are rated as more fairly distributed (3.52 v. 3.34) [7]. The division of the outcome is perceived as more in line with the needs of the respondent when village elders were the most helpful provider (3.45 v. 3.27) [8]. Also the outcome considers better the interests of the other party/ies in the dispute (3.46 v. 3.25). [9]

In general, processes conducted by village elders have more restorative power. On the question: “To what extent did the outcome restore the damages caused by the problem?”, village elders receive a higher score — 3.23 compared to 3.04 for other providers. [10]

The questionnaire also checks the ability of the outcome to restore specific negative consequences reported by the respondents. For instance, if the respondent reported a negative impact of the legal issue on their health, we ask to what extent the outcome of the dispute resolution process restores this damage. The results are not statistically significant – most likely because of low frequency values at that point of the analysis.

One type of negative consequence as a result of the legal problem is particularly interesting – violence against the respondent. In this dimension village elders again outperform other dispute resolution mechanisms (3.23 v. 2.93).[11]

Costs of informal justice

The monetary, time, stress and emotional costs of the procedures in which village elders are perceived as the most useful provider are also better perceived compared to all other providers. For time and money, however, the contrast is not large.There is a larger and more interesting difference in the dimension of stress and negative emotions.

According to the respondents, village elders resolve legal problems with less stress for the participants (2.83 v. 2.69) [12]. Despite the better score of village elders, stress and negative emotions are the worst dimensions that Ethiopians encounter on their justice journeys. Even though village elders have slightly better results, this finding needs attention and further research.

[1] X2=102.90, p<.000

[2] See report referenced in footnote 1 for about impact score. The impact score ranges from 0 (no impact) to 1 (extreme impact).

[3] F=22.93, p<.000

[4] Ordered logistics regression likelihood ratio chi-square = 229, p<.000. Beta coefficient of village elders – -.90, p<.000, beta coefficient of impact score – 1.4, p<.000

[5] As reference category we use crime.

[6] Excluded are processes where only negotiation took place and a few processes in which there was a negotiation and an involvement of a third party.

[7] F=7.09, p=.008

[8] F=6.13, p=.013

[9] F=9.01, p=.003

[10] F=7.50, p=.006

[11] F=4.94, p=.028

[12] F=5.72, p=.017; higher score means less stress and less negative emotions.