Author: Juan Botero, Justice Sector Advisor
Out of every 1000 disputes that arise in Colombia today, how many of them are peacefully resolved through institutional dispute resolution channels and how many lead to a downward spiral of conflict which ultimately results in violence? A regular citizen who recently came to the Casa de Justicia (House of Justice) in a low-income neighborhood in Chiquinquirá, in search for the State’s help to collect an unpaid debt, was so frustrated with the system´s inadequacy to assist him, that he left in anger, admonishing that he might better “pay some tough guys to go and collect the debt for him.” (DeJusticia, p. 101).
Is the Colombian justice apparatus’ systemic failure to deal with everyday disputes one of the key reasons behind the civil war that has torn the country apart for over 50 years? As Couture advises, “Primitive man’s reaction to injustice appears in the form of vengeance… to do justice by his own hand. Only at the cost of mighty historical efforts has it been possible to supplant in the human soul the idea of self-obtained justice by the idea of justice entrusted to authorities” (Couture, ‘The Nature of Judicial Process’, p. 7).
The Colombian program of Casas de Justicia—multi-door, community dispute resolution centers—provides a valuable opportunity to test multiple dimensions of people-centered access to justice at scale in a developing country setting. Launched as a pilot project in two large low-income neighborhoods in Bogotá (Ciudad Bolívar) and Cali (Aguablanca) a quarter of a century ago, the program has expanded into 158 venues1 in 132 municipalities throughout the country. Multiple reasons make this program interesting for case study purposes: (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 neighborhoods throughout the country. (iv) The program’s diverse settings of implementation (given large socio-economic and cultural differences across Colombian regions2), 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.
In spite of the program’s multiple shortcomings, the Casas de Justicia have become the reference point of Justice for vast segments of the Colombian population, particularly for disadvantaged groups. While there are many critics, the program’s general acclaim has made it an example that has been studied by other countries, and which many believe contains some of the key ingredients for successful expansion of access to justice for marginalized populations in the Global South.
A World Bank´s comprehensive review of access to justice in Colombia describes the program as follows (Varela and Pearsons, p. 175):
According to the Colombian Ministry of Justice, central authority in charge of the general direction of the Casas de Justicia program, from 15 to 20 million cases have been handled by this multi-door, community dispute resolution centers, form its foundation in 19953. (DeJusticia, p. 77-78; Ministerio de Justicia, 2013). However, 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. Overall, the most prevalent use of the Casas de Justicia program according to DeJusticia where in family disputes, criminal matters, document petitions, conflicts related to leases and public utilities, employment disputes among others (DeJusticia, p. 54).
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%4.). Sources also diverge widely about impact; while some data suggest 50% of disputes are effectively resolved within a short time (and high user satisfaction), others find that the program is nothing more than a highly institutionalized placebo which seeks to defuse neighbor grievances among marginalized communities rather than to actually resolve them (Bucheli, Solano and Recalde 2017).
Finally, the program must be assessed in terms of level of achievement of its multiple goals, including that of diverting disputes away from the court system to try and resolve them through alternative administrative procedures and official and private ADR methods. In fact, participation of the formal judicial branch in the Casas de Justicia remains relatively marginal throughout the country today5. 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 labor inspectors from the Ministry of labor, a delegate of the National Registry office or the Instituto Colombiano de Bienestar Familiar (minors defense agency), are also commonly present. (Ministry of Justice, 2012, p. 12)6.
The theory behind the program—why is this program potentially replicable across developing countries? What exactly is replicable?
The literature identifies four theoretical models of justice delivery that are behind the Casas de Justicia program in Colombia (see, e.g., DeJusticia, p. 23): The first one is the Efficiency Model, in which the program’s main goal is to divert cases away from the judicial system by providing alternative dispute resolution systems (ADR) trough multi-door courthouses, where litigants may use other ways to resolve their disputes rather than taking them to an overburdened court system. This model, originally proposed by Harvard Law professor Frank Sander in 19767, was enthusiastically adopted by the United States Agency of International Development (USAID) and implemented in Colombia and many other countries (e.g., Guatemala, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and Argentina), over the past three decades (Hernández, 2012, p. 363-393). The original Casas de Justicia in Colombia were set up with USAID help, and the same donor has continued to support the program until today.
The second model is the Access Model, it which the program’s main goal is to reduce conflicts in society by enhancing access to justice for marginalized communities. This model has been implemented in Europe (France, Spain) through a variant of the multi-door courthouse called Justicia de proximindad (justice of proximity), which not only seeks to resolve disputes but also to prevent them through an alternative approach to justice that is multi-disciplinary in nature and reaches out to the community (see, e.g., Herrera; Carretero; Armenta Deu 2006). While the original impetus behind the Colombian Casas de Justicia was USAID’s efficiency model, most of these Houses have been set up under the access model—with the goal of expanding access to justice to underserved populations, by bringing multiple agencies and private dispute resolution venues under the same roof, in the poorest neighborhoods and violence thorn small towns. While this model also seeks to prevent and resolve disputes away from the court system, its emphasis on prevention and community outreach sets it apart.
According to multiple studies, some of the Casas de Justicia’s shortcomings are tied to the program’s ambivalence between enhancing efficiency and widening access, i.e., to the contradiction between competing goals (DeJusticia p. 25; Bucheli, Solano and Recalde 2017).
The third model proposed in the literature for the establishment of the Casas de Justicia in Colombia is the State consolidation model, in which a program originally intended for large cities (over 100,000 population), has been taken to smaller towns in regions severely affected by armed conflict, in order to help cement the State presence (Varela and Pearsons, p. 175; DeJusticia, p.41)8. This model is one of territorial expansion of the State in a conflict and post conflict setting.
Finally, some authors have argued that Casas de Justicia do not really seek to prevent or resolve disputes, but rather to simply defuse them. According to this critical perspective, the Houses are not more than listening devises (much like a peer support group) where marginalized populations can take their disputes to an “authority” and be heard, but without any real expectation of resolving the dispute. We call this the Placebo justice model.
The above description shows the program´s richness for purposes of testing multiple dimensions of citizen-centered access to justice at scale in a developing country setting. The diversity of contexts and design variations of the program suggest the following key variables for consideration:
Some of these variables were identified in HiiL’s latest Trend Reports as key determinants of people-centered justice delivery.
The following pages assess the Casas de Justicia program in terms of the five dimensions defined in the first chapter of this publication
In terms of targeting the most prevalent justice needs among the most vulnerable populations, the program has been remarkably successful in urban settings. 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. Since unattended justice needs are disproportionately higher among low-income people in Colombia (Corporación Exelencia en la Justicia; Ministerio de Justicia; La Rota, Lalinde and Uprimny, 2013, 2017), the program has succeeded in targeting the most prevalent justice needs among the most vulnerable urban populations.
Evidence on the program’s effectiveness in rural areas remains disputed. An important share of violence and crime in Colombia take 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 do 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 neighborhoods or in rural areas. While this program is widely popular among both the public and the officers that were interviewed for this study, there is no evidence of its effectiveness. One expert called it “justicia golondrina” (swallow justice), after the bird that only comes from time to time, without leaving any meaningful footprint. Several experts consider that this kind of program is extremely difficult to sustain under the current model and level of resources, and thus not effective. 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. In a middle-income country setting, expanding access beyond available means may lead to overreach and it may ultimately harm the legitimacy and effectiveness of the justice system.
People-centred justice aims for solutions people need to move on with their lives. How and to what extent has the Casas de Justicia program researched and identified the outcomes that people expect from justice processes? Does the program deliver these outcomes? Is there an efficient and effective data collection and monitoring system to track the program’s operation and a system of indicators that tracks whether processes deliver these outcomes and allow people to move on?
Evidence on defining and monitoring outcomes suggest that most houses of justice have been set up without sufficient evaluation of the prevailing justice needs of the community10. Officers suggest that justice needs among the poor are so prevalent in Colombia, that little or no assessment is necessary, as long as the inter-agency alignment is present to set up one of these houses (DeJusticia; interviews). Most experts believe that variations in justice needs across cities and regions in Colombia are of such magnitude, that the model should not be implemented as a one-size-fits-all approach or under the assumption that it will be used. In fact, over the years some houses have turned into “white elephants,” mostly empty buildings where very little service is provided (due to issues of financial and political sustainability, which are addressed below).
Multiple studies (Casas de Justicia de Medellin; DeJusticia; USAID; Programa Nacional de Casas de Justicia y Convivencia Ciudadana) indicate that the program’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, so that people could move on with their lives. Anecdotal evidence and general surveys on user satisfaction suggest that the service provided at some of the Casas de Justicia is far superior to the alternative (the formal court system).
Finally, according to Bucheli, Solano and Recalde’s (2017) thorough analysis of the Casa de Jusitica in Aguablanca, Cali (one of the two original pilot projects, which has been in operation for over 25 years), the Casa de Justicia serves the purpose for the government to demonstrate that it is doing something while in reality it is doing little more than numbing the pain, without really curing the underlying injury:
The authors state that while many people are listened to, very few are actually served with meaningful solutions. Thus, they suggest that this House is little more than a listening device or support group, not a real solution to justice needs.
Other authors are even more critical of the program, suggesting that it may have actually help to keep gross human rights violations hidden, under the cover of the do-it-yourself justice template of the houses of justice. According to Stacey Hunt (2010):
Unfortunately, weaknesses in the program´s data collection and analysis system, as well as 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 (2017) suggest, or whether these figures effectively represent over 20 million justice needs actually met, as the Ministry of Justice claims. Anecdotal evidence collected in this research 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”. In the absence of reliable data on outputs and outcomes, the program´s success remains unproven.
People-centred justice enables citizens and justice workers to systematically improve the ways to achieve solutions. How and to what extent has the Casas de Justicia program introduced interventions that are evidence-based and consistently deliver the justice outcomes that people in the target population look for? Has the program used outcome-based monitoring to continuously improve these interventions and replace interventions that have proven ineffective?
While there have been various assessments of the program (DeJusticia; USAID; Ministerio de Justicia; Colprensa) the program has remained essentially unchanged since its formalization under Decree 1477 of 2000. These studies have identified some of the program’s strengths but also very significant weaknesses, which have not been addressed. A further review is currently underway under the auspices of the Ministry of Justice and the National Planning Agency, which may lead to reform.
Virtually all assessments of the program conducted over the past two decades indicate that 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, rather than out of careful, evidence-based determination of needs and results in the community (DeJusticia; Buchely et al. 2017) Moreover, 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.
Abundant anecdotal evidence collected during the interviews suggest that current handling of justice needs on a per-case basis is ineffective and it represents a missed opportunity. While both the House coordinator and the reception point (triage system) try to integrate a multi-agency response to incoming cases, a particular situation is normally handled by one agency (e.g., a debt collection problem may end up as a case for police mediation, for equitable conciliation, or become a case for the small claims court). Rarely is this case considered on a multi-agency basis in the context of the whole situation, e.g., in a debt collection case, the justice machinery is not designed to systematically ask whether the debtor was unable or unwilling to pay, and why.
Various officers and small claims court personnel at the Casa de Justicia of Ciudad Bolivar (the first one and one of the largest) told us about several cases in which they were able to coordinate highly effective inter-agency responses to particular cases, to address the whole underlying situation rather than the specific case at hand. For instance, in one eviction case that was brought before a small claims judge against an elderly person, the judge practiced an in-situ assessment of the case and saw the appalling situation in which this elderly person was living. Out of her own initiative, the judge issued letters to various government agencies, requesting assistance for the defendant. Moreover, since the judge was unable to confirm that the landlord was the legal owner of the small room in which the defendant lived, she delayed the eviction process while allowing for other municipal government agencies to intervene. At the end, Social Services (Secretaria de Inegración Social) intervened; they took the elderly person and provided him with a proper dwelling. Other agencies assisted as well. The successful outcome of this case is in part a consequence of the physical proximity of officers under the same Casa de Justicia—since they go for coffee or lunch together and get to know each other, they informally refer cases to one another and try to let justice prevail in the broader context of the whole situation of cases brought before them. However, this holistic approach to justice is the exception rather than the rule.
In the above example and many other cases that were handled in this holistic way, inter-agency coordination at the Casa de Justicia was mostly a personal choice of the officers involved, out of compassion. In purely bureaucratic terms, the judge in the above case did not do what she was supposed to do—she deliberately delayed the eviction case on a technicality, in order to protect the elderly person in need. While the outcome was correct, this success story does not as much reflect the system’s overall merit as an well-oiled machine, as the good nature and judgment of a handful of officers involved.
The Casas de Justicia program is designed to bring agencies under the same roof and to enable users to go through a triage system to allocate cases more efficiently. It is not designed to consider justice needs in the broader context of whole situations—in which, as it is almost always the case, one particular justice need is inevitably related to many others. Debt collection issues, family violence, labor or neighbor disputes, and criminal cases, are rarely independent of each other; they are often multiple faces of the same underlying situation. From this perspective, the program represents a step in the right direction, without fully reaching the end goal.
People-centred justice creates new service delivery models, reaching millions of people sustainably. How and to what extent has the Casas de Justicia program scaled their people-centered service delivery model to deliver justice outcomes for a larger target population? Is the program sustainable? Does it consider public-private partnerships or smart (user) contributions? (See, HiiL Trend Report 2020, “Charging for Justice”).
As it was explained above, the Casas de Justicia program have been enormously successful in delivering people-centered justice at scale to marginalized populations throughout most large and medium-sized urban centers in Colombia. They are, indeed, the reference point of Justice for most low-income people in the country, handing over 20 million cases in the past two decades. Yet, the program also has equally large room for improvement.
Lack of consistency of service delivery (independence of political winds at the national, regional and municipal level) and issues of financial sustainability, are two persistent and highly related problems facing the Casas de Justicia throughout the country. These twin problems are largely related to the program’s design, as it is explained below.
Since the service delivery model depends upon voluntary participation of multiple independent agencies that belong to different levels of government (national, regional, local), and to different branches of government (executive, judiciary and independent control organisms), coordination among them represents a major bureaucratic challenge. Several issues have been consistently identified by multiple studies:
All of the above factors compound among them into a negative circle loop, which ultimately affects the quality of the services offered to people.
Finally, regarding public-private partnerships or smart (user) contributions, as mentioned above, the houses have been generally successful in securing partnerships with the legal clinics of local universities and local chambers of commerce, to provide in-site conciliation and legal advice services to users. Since the primary target of the Houses of Justice are marginalized communities, all services are provided free-of-charge—smart (user) contributions are not present.
People-centred justice pushes for a financial, regulatory and legal regime that makes it happen. How and to what extent have regulatory and financial systems created/enabled by the government supported the Casas de Justicia program and made it possible for this service/activity to scale? How and to what extent have the outcomes-based, people-centered services delivered by the Casas de Justicia program been allowed to become the default procedure? How and to what extent has the Casas de Justicia program stimulated (or benefitted from) investment into justice research and development?
As explained above, the basic regulatory framework remains essentially unchanged since year 2000. A comprehensive review of the program is currently underway and preliminary conclusions of this study suggest the need to implement regulatory changes, particularly in order to improve inter-agency coordination mechanisms.
Secondly, also mentioned above, the Casas de Justicia have become the default avenue for handling conflicts at low-income neighborhoods throughout the country’s urban centers. Expansion to rural areas have proven problematic, in light of logistical and financial challenges, and due to the pervasive violence still affecting large parts of the country.
Finally, the Casas de Justicia program have not stimulated (or benefitted from) investment into justice research and development. The basic theoretical models in which the program is based, were developed several decades ago.
People-centred justice requires effective leadership, rising to the challenge of a paradigm change, with new skills and relationships, discovering pathways to a justice system that does not let people down, and truly ensures equal access to justice for all. How and to what extent have justice sector leaders’ skills and collaborations enabled/hindered the Casas de Justicia program to increase access to justice by delivering the outcomes people need at scale? How and to what extent has the Casas de Justicia program contributed to/benefited from new high-level strategies or pathways towards people-centred justice in Colombia? To what extent has the Casas de Justicia program contributed to/played a role in a broader paradigm shift towards people-centered justice?
Evidence is mixed. Despite all the program’s difficulties and shortcomings, it has significantly contributed to a paradigm shift about people-centered justice in Colombia, which may be successfully improved and even replicated in many countries throughout the Global South. Its focus on bringing justice closer to users (particularly those most in need), through inter-agency coordination at the local level, has been a remarkable success. The chaotic expansion and implementation of the program throughout the country, its dearth of reliable data on outputs and outcomes, and uneven service delivery across municipalities, are weaknesses in need of attention, which will require major changes at both the regulatory and operational levels.
Data for this case study comes from:
1 As of October, 2020, the Programa Nacional de Casas de Justicia y Centros de Convivencia Ciudadana (National Program on Houses of Justice and Citizen Coexistence Centers) includes 116 Casas de Justicia and 42 Centros de Convivencia.
2 While Colombia is classified by the World Bank as an upper middle-income country, internal variations across regions cover the span of the developing world. Socio-economic indicators of some of the country´s regions, e.g., the Pacific coast, are comparable to those of the world’s least developed nations. Variations in terms of ethnicity are also significant. Finally, some regions have experienced longstanding internal armed conflict, while others are relatively peaceful, which translates into diverging levels of exposure to violence and diverse dispute resolution needs.
3 It should be noted that according to DeJusticia, (p.49, 78) the official figure of users regarding the Casas de Justicia program is not accurate, as the program does not have reliable means of receiving and processing data on users and services at large scale across the country.
4 DeJusticia; Ministerio de Justicia y el Derecho; USAID; World Bank.
5 For instance, the Consejo Superior de la Judicatura as main administrative body of the Colombian Judiciary is not formally involved in the development of the Casas de Justicia program according to its foundational Law and Decree.
6 In some cases, other special agencies are present in the Casas de Justicia. For example, in municipalities that have a relevant presence of indigenous or ethnic communities, a office of Ethnic affairs the Ministry of Interior is present.
7 “In 1976, [Harvard Law School professor Frank Sander] delivered a seminal paper, “Varieties of Dispute Processing,” at the Pound Conference. In it, Professor Sander put forth the notion of the multi-door courthouse—a multifaceted dispute-resolution model currently used in several settings in the United States and abroad” (Sander and Hernández Crespo, 2008, p. 667).
8 For example, in the design of development of the Casas de Juticia program, a three-category scheme was envisioned, where municipalities were prioritized according to their population. (Ministerio de Justicia, 2012, p. 34).
9 As of October, 2020, the Programa Nacional de Casas de Justicia y Centros de Convivencia Ciudadana (National Program on Houses of Justice and Citizen Coexistence Centers) includes 116 Casas de Justicia and 42 Centros de Convivencia.
10 The Casas de Justicia program provides that before opening a house of justice, the municipality must conduct thorough research on legal needs and a diagnosis of the most prevalent types of conflict in the proposed area (Ministerio de Justicia, 2012, p. 39). Nonetheless, as the adoption of the program is discretionary by the municipalities, the house may be set up without regard to actual legal needs.
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