You can’t really miss it: a huge square concrete wall full of graffiti. In the middle, a dignified sign in UN blue & white. Casa Justitia Cuidad Bolivar. This is not a chique neighbourhood. Small taxi’s, old trucks, and most people take the bus. There’s also the cable car to get to the higher parts of the barrio. The building is attached to the municipal offices. Local justice and administration, hand in hand. Around them, the small shops and café’s that form the livelihood of some and a critical service for others. This is down-town, everyday life.
Houses of Justice are one of the promising ways to make significant advances in closing the access to justice gap. Easy-to-access places, situated close to those that need justice most. They bring together the services of different providers: police, judges, mediators, tax services, and sometimes even social workers and psychologists.
It would be wrong to draw universally applicable conclusions from my visit to the Casa Justitia Cuidad Bolivar in Bogotá. Nonetheless, it may be useful to share some of what I saw and heard.
The building is fairly new. It’s light; not one of the dark and run-down justice buildings I have seen in so many parts of the world. Clear signs direct to the triage desk, rooms for hearings and conversations, and the different justice areas where there is most need: violence against mothers and children, consumer problems, employment problems, crime, and small claims. Friendly guards show the way. A young lawyer mans the triage desk – she’s the only one today. The Casa serves around 1,7 million people. To make it work, 14 different agencies and departments need to come together.
“Can you imagine what a challenge it is to get that done? They all have separate budgets, separate human resources priorities, and different priorities.” Maria, the administrative head of the Casa, laughed. She told us how once she had been sent 2 economists, 2 engineers, and 1 lawyer for a group that was set up to provide justice assistance to prostitutes who encountered sexual violence. She made do. It was better than nothing.
“The only way to get them to take the Casa seriously is by pampering them. Show what a valuable contribution they are making”, she continued.
One of the judges invited us into a session. A big, lonely man in his sixties sat in the small courtroom. Small as it was, it had been fitted with microphones for the judge and the parties to use. Maybe for recording purposes. The man wore a patched blazer and a cap. His crutches where parked against the table he was sitting at. It took a while before he understood understand how the mic worked. The judge extended a friendly greeting and asked him to confirm that he was indeed one of the two people who had the housing conflict. The other person had not shown up. There was no lawyer. With amazing patience she guided the man through the legal problem he had. It was clear that he did not fully understand the law, despite her efforts.
“It’s taking so long..” the man complained. The judge would have none of that. “We started in November – 4 months ago. We are now in February. That is not slow.” I saw her sign her decision 40 minutes later.
I should not have asked about the legal profession. “Lawyers rarely show up here.”, Maria grumbled. “They only come to courts in the wealthier neighbourhoods. And if they come, they cause more trouble than they help resolve. You see: they totally lack conciliation skills. Always arguing, contradicting.”
Maria does not have an innovation budget. She lacks data about needs and outcomes. She manages on her own whit, often despite and around the systems that should be there to support her. Despite these difficulties, the Casa has survived for a little over 25 years. I left with the feeling that the Houses of Justice are indeed a promising way to significantly move the needle towards basic justice care for everyone. It kind of works. But it could be so much better. Not by providing them with more justice finesse. The people that work here generally know what to do in that regard. What is needed is more basic. Help to integrate processes and management would make a huge difference. Ensuring that there is more stability in the human resourcing. Providing them with data about the needs and experiences of the people they serve. Give her that and Maria will fly, taking the Casa with her.