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Better Access to Justice Services in Colombia

September 22, 2015

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A new courthouse facility, built from a revitalized bank, enables citizens to access expedited justice services in Bogota, Colombia.

Camilo Andres Avila Ceballos / World Bank

Colombia is improving its delivery of timely, efficient, effective and quality dispute resolution services to its citizens. The government expanded access to quality justice services, particularly to vulnerable groups. It created 50 new mediation centers, and 14 decentralized court facilities and information centers, reaching 350,000 potential users in six major cities. Typical case processing times were also dramatically reduced, from an average of two years to a few months.

Challenge

Often confusing and complex, Colombia’s traditional “written” court system significantly slowed communication and overwhelmed the capacity of courts to respond to citizens’ demands. The result was persistent backlogs. Vulnerable and hard to reach groups were particularly affected by these challenges, due to limited access to information and uneven geographic coverage of justice and mediation services. Successful reform efforts had already targeted the criminal justice system, but there remained gaps in labor, civil, and family courts. 

Solution

The Justice Service Strengthening Project was designed to advance legal reforms and enable a transition from the predominantly “written” court system (relying on written correspondence) to an oral system. Building on the World Bank’s Country Partnership Strategy (2008-2011), the project complemented government’s efforts to transition to the oral system in labor, civil, and family courts. Under the new system, many time-consuming written communications were to be streamlined into a single court hearing. The project focused on the cities of Barranquilla, Bogotá, Bucaramanga, Cartagena, Cali and Medellín, while developing the Judiciary’s capacity to improve performance and manage the comprehensive reform process across the country.

Results

The impacts were deepened with an additional focus on improving access to justice services significantly by decentralizing service units, information centers, and creating alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. These interventions helped alleviate grievances and enhance citizen confidence in the justice sector. Specific results included:

Improved performance of civil, family, and labor courts strengthened justice service delivery.

  • Court backlogs were reduced by nearly 1,086,000 cases, and productivity increased by an average of 389 cases per judge per year.
  • Through efficiency gains, 234 courts incurred savings of approximately US$92,000 per court per year.
  • Training and evaluation of 89 percent of Judiciary staff improved performance and productivity, in accordance with national reforms and the General Judicial Process Code.

Access to justice services was expanded, particularly to vulnerable groups.

  • Establishment of 14 decentralized facilities expanded access to justice services for a user base of over 350,000 citizens.
  • Establishment of 14 permanent user information offices to disseminate justice sector standards of accountability, transparency, and effectiveness, increased awareness of citizens’ rights and duties
  • Creation of 55 certified mediation centers and support for an additional 30 increased the system’s reach to 165,000 users (an increase of 825 percent). 

" The Justice Service Strengthening Project was designed to advance legal reforms and enable a transition from the predominantly “written” court system (relying on written correspondence) to an oral system.  "

Bank Group Contribution

Over the last decade, the World Bank has supported the government of Colombia to improve its response to citizens’ demands for efficient and effective justice services and expanded access for vulnerable groups, key to fostering peace and inclusion in a country long torn by civil war. For this project, the Bank contributed US$18.55million. The Bank’s support for improvements in physical infrastructure and human resource capacity accelerated the reform process, which was already showing strong potential for improving the timeliness and quality of justice services. The project also built on the unique management model introduced under the Bank-financed Judicial Conflict Resolution Improvement Learning and Innovation Project (which closed in 2006).

Partners

The project was designed at the request of the Colombian Judiciary through a comprehensive diagnostic of the justice sector, funded by a grant from the Japan Policy and Human Resources Development Fund (PHRD). It was also conceived in partnership with the Inter-American Development Bank (IADB), whose complementary Judiciary reform efforts were harmonized through the National Planning Department. Complementary funding from the Japan Social Development Fund (JSDF) also enabled the scaling up of project components for expanding access to justice and dispute resolution services for low-income and vulnerable groups. 

Moving Forward

The first National Unmet Justice Needs Survey conducted through the project yielded important insights to expand dispute resolution services. The Ministry of Justice continues to update its results, used to track progress towards key objectives under the National Development Plan. Infrastructure supported through the project, such as new courtrooms, information technologies, and audio and video equipment, has also been fully integrated into the Judiciary’s routine maintenance plans, ensuring its longevity.

Going forward, the Judiciary plans to scale managerial reforms adopted through the project into a “unified management model,” integrating the approach across different court systems, including through software to further streamline case management.

Beneficiaries

The main beneficiaries of the project were citizens benefiting from the improvements in dispute resolution services, particularly vulnerable groups such as women and residents of hard-to-reach areas. Judges in civil, family, and labor courts of the six targeted cities also benefited through improved productivity as a result of the infrastructure, training, and technical assistance activities.

Decentralized services and information centers have been well received. For example, in interviews with beneficiaries in Bogota, Bucaramanga, and Medellin (pictured in Photo 1), judges and users observed how access to justice services has improved. As one user explained, it had taken her two hours and several costly bus rides to access the system. Now she could access services in less time, with the opportunity to appear before a judge, and to process routine cases without traveling far from home. As several judges observed, public information on these services is making a difference in communities, where citizens will now be less likely to resort to taking justice into their own hands.

1,086,000
cases less in court backlogs.