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6. In conclusion: How can informal justice in Ethiopia give rise to game-changing community justice services?

Informal Justice in Ethiopia / 6. In conclusion: How can informal justice in Ethiopia give rise to game-changing community justice services?

Evidence from the existing literature, the Justice Needs and Satisfaction study in Ethiopia 2020, and interviews with key stakeholders clearly indicate that informal justice and particularly village elders are an integral part of justice delivery in the country. Half of the legal problems that people encounter in their daily lives are routed to informal justice mechanisms. Village elders have a particularly large role at the bottom of the justice needs pyramid. 

Informal justice has a massive market in Ethiopia. Our estimation based on evidence from the 2020 JNS survey is that every year village elders resolve at least 3 million issues. Other forums of informal justice add their share to this already significant volume. This is a considerable opportunity for justice in Ethiopia.

Not only is informal justice used often but people generally perceive it as accessible and effective. Ethiopians are more satisfied with the quality of the justice journeys provided by village elders compared to the processes of other providers. Informal justice and in particular village elders rely a lot on reconciliation to reach agreements between the parties. A strong focus on restoring relationships is a central tenet of informal justice. Other advantages are accessibility, speed, embeddedness in local culture, and values. People trust informal justice mechanisms. 

Beyond the many positive aspects, there are notable concerns about the compliance of informal justice with international human rights standards. In certain cases, informal justice can infringe on the basic human rights of vulnerable groups with little or no redress mechanisms. Informal justice can also reinforce communal values which do not support equality, non-discrimination and due process.

Our task in this concluding chapter is not to weigh the pros and cons of informal justice in Ethiopia. It makes little sense to think that informal justice can be simply replaced by formal institutions. Can the millions of problems processed by informal justice be transferred to the courts or other state institutions? Unlikely. People would be unable to surmount the inherent barriers that lie ahead of the formal institutions and procedures. Moreover, such a massive amount of disputes (at least 3 million disputes every year!) would overburden any formal justice system in the world. 

The key question in this chapter is: what is needed to scale up the successes of informal justice while avoiding its pitfalls. Ultimately, this is a discussion that the Ethiopian formal and informal justice leaders and stakeholders must initiate and steer. Hereby, we are sharing our experience with similar processes.

Informal justice can become a stepping stone for the next generation of accessible, effective and scalable access to justice services in Ethiopia. First, comprehensive and reliable data infrastructure is needed to monitor the demand and supply of justice at the bottom of the pyramid. Second, informal justice in Ethiopia has a huge potential to show “what works”. Such knowledge can be replicated and enhanced so people receive better resolutions and outcomes to their justice needs. Third, practices from informal justice can inspire justice innovators and investors. Impactful solutions can also be developed, funded, and delivered publicly. Fourth, informal justice can trigger gamechaning community justice services only if there is an enabling environment for that.

Reliable data infrastructure: people-centred justice data can be gathered at various levels. Surveys have huge potential to measure justice needs as people encounter such needs in their daily lives. Innovations in technology and research methods constantly open new opportunities to study justice from people’s perspectives. Administrative data from justice and non-justice sector institutions can be gathered, collated and analysed to monitor the demand and supply for justice. Internet of Things, social media platforms and text analytics are emerging sources of justice data.

A sound data infrastructure is needed to gather the potential that justice data can yield to People-centered justice in Ethiopia. Such an infrastructure requires data but also political will, capacity and most importantly — processes that mainstream data into policies, programmes and services that work for the people.

Use of evidence-based practices: evidence-based justice delivery is an intrinsic element of People-centered justice. In the case of informal justice, this means that rigorous research can uncover practices that deliver good justice outcomes. Knowing what works in delivering justice is a powerful tool for empowering justice workers to do their work better and more effectively. Methods exist to identify, analyse, and systematise such practices rigorously.[1]

Game-changing innovations: informal justice practices have significant potential to give rise to innovative justice solutions that resolve many problems and impact positively the lives of millions of people.  At HiiL we call such solutions — game-changing services. game-changing services ‘are justice service delivery models that are sustainable, scalable and are those that can bring solutions to people for their most pressing justice needs.’ [2]  A gamechanger must: (1) be able to deliver effective treatments consistently; (2) be financially sustainable; and (3) be scalable as a service (or combination of services) to 80, 90 or even 100 percent of the population experiencing the problem. [3]

Based on HiiL’s research and insights, seven categories of gamechaning services have been identified. [4] Community justice services is one of these categories. “Community justice services are those where the local community is involved in the definition or the delivery of the service available to all members of the community. The services are provided by community authorities, trusted members of the community, or public officials elected or endorsed by the community.” [5]

Game-changing community justice services can be developed in different ways. Smart startups can come up with working solutions based on sustainable business models. For this to happen an ecosystem of justice innovation, innovation support, and an enabling environment is needed (see below for more on the enabling environment).

Another approach to generate gamechaning justice services is to organize a process of ideation, prototyping, commercialization, and implementation of game-changing services based on informal justice. We have experience with organising such processes in Justice Innovation Labs where a dedicated group starts from a concrete justice problem and works towards a solution that can resolve considerable amount of legal problems in a fair, accessible, affordable and quick manner.

Enabling environment: informal justice can fully show its potential only if there is an enabling policy, administrative, financial and technological environment. Creating such an environment is not easy. It requires political leadership dedicated to the vision that justice works when it works for the people. We call this — People-centered justice. An enabling environment ensures that game-changing justice services evolve and are not suffocated by constraints, lack of financing or guild interests.

Creating an enabling environment for game-changing justice services is about political leadership. HiiL’s approach to steering such leadership is based on dialogue and enlightened commitment. The ultimate purposes of such dialogue sessions are to create shared acceptance for People-centered justice and a positive orientation towards justice transformation. 

Enabling environment is also about ensuring that the regulations are open towards new ways for increasing access to justice. Monopolies and other restrictions of the market for good resolutions need not impede justice innovations. Models of public and private funding should not discriminate against new and promising approaches.

The way ahead: building on informal justice towards game-changing Community justice services.

We are not going to prescribe steps or provide examples of Community justice services from elsewhere. [6] Ethiopia has a great informal justice legacy which can be turned into more and better access to justice. After listening to many users and experts about the scope, performance, strengths and weaknesses of informal justice we are confident that the way forward is based on the 4 steps elaborated above:

There is considerable room for improving access to justice in Ethiopia. Just as everywhere across the world, the demand for justice is significant and the justice gap is growing. Informal justice in Ethiopia has a big promise for making justice more People-centered. If its positive elements are enhanced and the concerns are addressed, informal justice can become a powerful platform for People-centered justice. What is needed is focused and committed work on more and better data, the establishment of evidence-based working, and the development of game-changing Community justice services. Last but not least, an enabling environment is a must in order to ensure that the potential of informal justice pans out into more and better access to justice for the people of Ethiopia.