How can customary and informal justice systems strengthen SDG16?

A new global initiative has been launched to advocate for engaging effectively with the customary and informal justice (CIJ) practices and thus, realise equal access to justice for all.

The global ‘access to justice’ gap is vast. This widening gap cannot be bridged by one organisation or agency alone. It is the responsibility of the global justice community to come together to develop the right solutions that work for people. This means creating and supporting accessible and affordable services that address everyday justice problems. 

One platform bringing together 60+ international and national organisations on people-centred approaches to solving justice issues is the Working Group on Customary and Informal Justice and SDG16+. This global initiative has come together to advocate for engaging effectively with the customary and informal justice (CIJ) practices. The goal is to pursue a common agenda for SDG16, realising equal access to justice for all.

CIJ practices remain the first point of contact for many of the world’s population but especially for women, poor people, minority groups, and marginalised communities. It is estimated that 80% of legal disputes around the globe get resolved outside of formal courts systems using CIJ systems.   

“Sometimes the line between how a dispute is resolved in community and healing is blurred” – Juan Carlos Botero, Panellist at the High-Level Dialogue and Associate Professor, Facultad de Ciencias Jurídicas, Pontificia Universidad Javeriana

Customary justice practices have been around for hundreds of years and are deeply grounded in the realities of the people they serve. These diverse justice mechanisms prioritise community needs making CIJ highly people-centred, collaborative and harmonious. This is especially true when compared to the post-colonial retributive formal legal systems across the Global South. And despite the criticism of perpetuating existing power dynamics and conservative social norms, CIJ systems do remain a very important vehicle to address access to justice. 

However, there is an opportunity now more than ever, for informal and formal justice systems to effectively coexist. In fact, many countries have provided helpful examples of them working very well together. These include Timor Leste, Bangladesh, Kyrgyzstan and Colombia. 

On 8 December 2021, a High-Level Dialogue on CIJ and SDG16+ met to discuss the challenges and opportunities of coordinating the formal and informal justice systems. Organised by the Working Group on CIJ, the dialogue featured policy-makers, members of the civil society, academicians and community justice practitioners and sought to galvanise support for placing CIJ at the centre of the global discourse on people-centred justice. 

This debut meeting of the working group kicks off a series of conversations on CIJ systems. A sharper understanding of the practices and complexities of CIJ systems will help justice-sector stakeholders apply a more holistic framework for people-centred justice. That, in turn, will help realise equal access to justice for all around the world. 

*Kanan Dhru works as Justice Innovation Researcher at HiiL and also represents the organisation at the Working Group on Customary and Informal Justice and SDG16+.


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