The Justice Houses in Colombia are multi-agency venues that provide information on rights, legal advice, and conflict resolution services—all in one building. Their objective is to facilitate access to formal and non-formal justice services in order to achieve a peaceful resolution to conflicts and to strengthen community co-existence.1 Thus, they are primarily situated in places with high levels of vulnerability, criminality, community conflict, and/or social or economic marginality, with reduced or nonexistent physical or institutional justice capacity.2
In 1995 the Colombian Ministry of Justice, together with USAID, created the “Casas de Justicia” or Justice Houses as a mechanism to address the unmet justice needs of people in Colombia.3 The Houses are one-stop resolution centers composed of a variety of 17 different local and national formal and non-formal justice institutions–from social workers, community development officers, the police inspectorate (civilian),4 to legal aid clinics.5 Their capacity depends on their size and institutional presence in the municipality. The Justice Houses provide solutions to people going through interpersonal disputes, neighborhood conflicts, domestic and sexual violence cases, criminal cases of lesser gravity, and address personal identity verification issues. Services for displaced and migrant populations are also provided, and matters of institutional abuse are sometimes considered.
The one-stop nature of the Justice Houses reduces access barriers and brings justice closer to the people, both physically and culturally. For example, no appointment is needed: anyone can go to the Justice Houses. Procedures are free of charge, easy to arrange, informal, and include psychosocial support depending on the case. Legal representation is not required and conflicts are many times resolved in a matter of days, instead of stretching out over weeks or months.
The objective of the Program is to provide access to justice in an effective and efficient manner, through inter-institutional centers of information, orientation, provision of justice services and conflict resolution. They serve as a people-centered justice initiative for underserved populations and are located mostly in low-income neighborhoods.
Even though it was originally designed for cities with populations of over 100,000, since 2005, a regional model was created consisting of a main justice house in a medium-sized municipality and satellite houses in neighboring smaller towns. By 2020, 42 of the new justice houses had adopted this regional model, seeking to help re-establish justice state presence in conflict-torn territories and provide justice services to people in situations of vulnerability.6
To date, the Justice Houses Program consists of 114 houses in 92 municipalities.7
The cost varies between municipalities. Even though the cost of building the Justice Houses comes from the Ministry of Justice, the maintenance, materials and personnel costs fall upon the municipal governments where the Houses are built.8
The Colombian Justice Houses model has been internationally celebrated, and has been replicated with some variations in several countries of the Global South. Examples include the Maisons d’Acces a la Justice in Rwanda and the Community Justice Houses in the Dominican Republic.9
While reviews of the Program differ, evidence indicates that it has been generally effective in addressing important everyday justice needs of the most vulnerable populations in the country. According to the Ministry of Justice, between 15 to 20 million cases have been handled by the Justice Houses since their creation.
However, there is the issue with the sustainability of the Program. The Houses depend on the participation of various institutions from the justice sector, some of which have insufficient staff to assign to the Justice Houses. Some municipalities lack political will to assume justice and conflict resolution commitments and have very small municipal budgets for justice services, or do not know how to properly allocate these funds. Additionally, some Houses suffer from a lack of, or deficient inter-agency coordination, as well as high personnel turnover.10
The current national government is looking to allocate construction funds to strengthen existing Houses (in terms of infrastructure renovation, materials, etc.) that are in lower income municipalities rather than expand the number of Justice Houses. Currently USAID and other donors do not provide construction funds, but only capacity building as well as community outreach to provide visibility of the Program’s presence towards the most vulnerable populations.
Institutions and personnel that are usually present in the Justice Houses:11
- Family Commissary
- Social Workers
- Office of the Reception and Information Center
- Ethnic Affairs Office
- Police inspectorate (civilian)
- Municipal Public Defenders Office
- Community development office
- Conciliators in equity and community mediators
- Conciliators in law
- Local or sectional prosecutor’s office
- Ombudsman’s Office
- Family Ombudsman’s Office ICBF
- Labor inspectorate
- Legal Forensic Medicine
- National Civil Registry Office
- National Police
- Integral Attention and Reparation of Victims Unit
- Colombian Agency for Reintegration
- Administrative Unit for Territorial Consolidation
- Legal Aid Clinics
- 1. "Evaluación institucional y de resultados del Programa Nacional de Casas de Justicia y de los Centros de Convivencia Ciudadana con el fin de plantear recomendaciones para mejorar el acceso a los servicios de justiciar," Departamento Nacional de Planeación, Colombia, 2020, https://colaboracion.dnp.gov.co/CDT/Sinergia/Documentos/CAS_JUST_Informe_Resultados_10032021.pd
- 2. Colombian Ministry of Justice, 2023, https://www.minjusticia.gov.co/programas-co/casas-de-justicia
- 3. By 2000 the National Justice Houses and Community Co-existence Centers Program, which is part of the Ministry of Justice, was created to facilitate the horizontal and vertical articulation of justice services, thus, becoming the governmental lead on the implementation of the Program. Departamento Nacional de Planeación (2020).
- 4. The Police Inspectors are support authorities that promote peaceful and harmonious relationships within the community. They also help conciliate and resolve issues that arise in the exercise of community coexistence via police regulations. Colombian Ministry of Justice, 2020. https://www.minjusticia.gov.co/programas-co/conexion-justicia/Documents/Infografias/InfografiaInspectores/funciones.pdf
- 5. Although they vary in design, they include: local prosecutors, public defenders, municipal human rights officers, municipal neighborhood affairs units, family commissary, legal aid specialists, social workers, and psychologists, and a variety of conciliation services. Botero, Juan, Case Study, “Casas de Justicia” in Colombia, HiiL, The Netherlands, 2021, https://dashboard.hiil.org/trend-report-2021-delivering-justice/case-study-casas-de-justicia-colombia/
- 6. Botero, “Casas de Justicia;” Note “people in situations of vulnerability” includes women, youth, elderly, LGBTQI+ persons, religious and racial minorities, and people living in poverty who are at the most risk of being affected by conflict and violence.
- 7. USAID, “Inclusive Justice Activity and Colombian Ministry of Justice data,” 2023, https://pdf.usaid.gov/pdf_docs/PA00XBNJ.pd
- 8. USAID, “Inclusive Justice;” “It is not possible to determine a standard estimated value for the construction of a Justice House since there are different variables that impact the value of these projects such as: institutional offer (which will determine the M2 to be built), the region (weather implies different types of materials), the type of soil found in the land study (which will determine the robustness of the foundation), the type of construction system, among others.” Interview with the Vice-Ministry for the Promotion of Justice, Colombian Ministry of Justice, 2023.
- 9. Rwanda: Maisons d'Acces a la Justice; Argentina: Access to Justice Centers; Dominican Republic: Community Justice Houses; Costa Rica: Justice Houses, among others. The Colombian Justice Houses even pre-date the French Maison de la Justice et du Droit created in 1999.
- 10. HiiL, “Women, youth.”
- 11. Ministerio de Justicia y del Derecho, 2023, https://www.minjusticia.gov.co/programas-co/casas-de-justicia/Paginas/casas.aspx#:~:text=Las%20Casas%20de%20Justicia%20en%20Colombia%20se%20conciben%20como%20un,existentes%20en%20el%20municipio%2C%20a