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In a recent survey conducted among female victims of violence in Pakistan, formal courts were described by the users as “frightening.” Respondents were also asked to list what they would change about the formal court process for women. Their response was an “overwhelming demand for less delays and quicker disposal of cases.” Formal courts in developing countries – civil law and common-law countries alike – are perceived to be not only bureaucratic and ineffective, but also inaccessible and threatening. There seems to be a global crisis of justice delivery, and it is particularly serious in low- and middle-income countries (MICs). The poor and other marginalized segments of society face significant limitations to access formal judicial institutions in developing countries. Cultural and language barriers, overly complex procedures and cumbersome legal requirements, financial limitations, mistrust for institutions derived from a colonial past, and radically different views on the nature and role of justice in society, among other factors, hamper the ability of low-income citizens to effectively resolve their disputes in official courts.
In old ages, people used customary justice systems to resolve their disputes, ranging from the Cheyenne “conference of tribal chiefs,” to the Afghan Jirgas, to the Liberian chiefdoms, to the Amazonian shamans. While many of these systems continue to operate today, the European colonization process of the past few centuries brought with it a new dispute-resolution system to all corners of the planet. In some places the old forms were completely abandoned while in others a dual arrangement emerged. Parallel systems of dispute resolution coexisted and interacted in most countries. In some places customary justice was formally and hierarchically integrated into the formal (European) judicial machinery, while in others they remained in operation de facto, mostly ignored or tolerated by the formal courts. For decades (in Africa and parts of Asia) or centuries (in Latin America and other parts of Asia), the formal courts were perceived mostly as instruments for resolving disputes among the descendants of European colonizers, the global and local business community, and the local elites. By design, in most colonies and pseudocolonies around the world formal courts were not intended to be widely accessible to ordinary folk. However, this was not seen as a problem per se, because people still had access to their customary justice systems.
Throughout the past two decades, the demand for social science indicators to quantify the performance of various institutions has increased dramatically. These indicators seek to address the concerns of policymaking and public audiences by operationalizing such complex, multi-dimensional concepts as governance, access to justice, corruption, and the rule of law, to name a few.
The increased demand for institutional indicators has led to a proliferation of indices. This special issue of the Hague Journal on the Rule of Law, entirely dedicated to measurement of institutional indicators across countries, represents the outcome of a collaborative effort between the Hague Institute for the Internationalisation of Law (HiiL) and The World Justice Project (WJP). In August 2010, these institutions convened in Washington, DC, a seminar with some of the leading researchers and indicator developers in the fields of governance, corruption, and access to justice. The goal of the seminar was to facilitate an open conversation about the need for, and the limitations of, cross-country institutional indicators. Presentations made at this seminar have been turned into papers for this special issue.
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