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April 15, 2024

People-Centered Justice in Somalia – The Justice Promoter Approach

From 2019 to 2023, the American Bar Association Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) implemented a five-year USAID-supported program in Somalia referred to as the Expanding Access to Justice (EAJ) program. Under this program, ABA ROLI partnered with several Somali government entities and local Somali civil society organizations to support and improve the administration of justice in Somalia. A core component of the EAJ program was the introduction of a people-centered service delivery model that adapts community-based paralegal services to the Somalia context, these individuals were known as “Justice Promoters”.

The objective of the EAJ Justice Promoters was to provide knowledge to clients regarding their legal rights and empower clients to seek justice, as well as to guide clients through the legal process, regardless of which justice system or venue the client preferred to work through. The Justice Promoters themselves comprised of individuals in good standing, each selected from their community to work directly in service to their community. ABA ROLI provided training to the Justice Promoters in topics such as basic law, and in skills including mediation, public education, advocacy, or organizing. The EAJ program introduced Justice Promoters in both the north in Somaliland, and in Southwest regions in and around Mogadishu. 

At the inception of the EAJ program, consistent with People-Centered Justice principles that motivate putting people and their justice needs at the center of a justice delivery model, ABA ROLI undertook a variety of research initiatives to understand what justice-seeking individuals need and want. ABA ROLI research included access to justice assessments that drew from household surveys and key informant interviews, a Gender and Social Inclusion Study and Analysis, and various issue specific and geographically specific research initiatives on topics such as land disputes and shariah in dispute resolution. 

The research and consultation with Somali experts affirmed that Somalia is a complex justice environment. In Somalia, norms, institutional structures, economic forces, and security considerations come together in complex and dynamic ways that influence how justice problems are resolved. ABA ROLI’s research further informed the understanding of Somalia’s plural justice context, which, in Somalia, refers to three primary forums: a customary dispute resolution path, led by clan elders, who apply customary precedent referred to as Xeer; a second path reliant on use of religious leaders, who apply an interpretation of Shari’ah; and a third path that utilizes state justice institutions and apply an interpretation of the formal legal code.

Within Somalia’s plural justice context, ABA ROLI’s research identified many challenges that informed the design of the Justice Promoter approach. Significantly, research identified that there is a general lack of confidence in formal justice systems that stemmed from an uncertainty about which laws or norms will be applied in any given case. Additionally, within Somali society there were different and competing notions of justice. The customary system applying Xeer emphasized community harmony at the expense of individual rights, whereas the formal legal code placed emphasis on certain individual rights. Furthermore, another notable challenge within the plural legal environment was the exclusion of whole populations from decision-making bodies in dispute resolution forums. Marginalized groups including minority clans, internally displaced people, and women were often excluded from participating in discussions or processes that directly affected them.

In identifying these significant challenges, ABA ROLI research indicated that these issues would not be easily addressed. Nonetheless, the Justice Promoter service delivery model the EAJ program developed served as a vehicle to begin improving justice journeys and to improve the empowerment of individuals to access services and opportunities.

One of the first objectives of the Justice Promoter approach was to make information and assistance services more accessible and to physically bring access to justice closer to where people were located. In addition, the approach focused on educating and empowering people, so they can make their own decisions about their desired justice pathways. Justice Promoters were able to provide services with a contextual awareness, and an understanding of local politics and power dynamics, which enabled them to provide advice to clients more effectively and realistically.

The EAJ program was able to realize the Justice Promoter approach through partnerships with a variety of Somali civil society organizations who were trusted by their communities. Some EAJ partners previously worked on justice issues, such as the Somaliland Women Lawyers Association. Other partners focused on distinct client groups, including organizations focused on disability rights, education, women’s rights, and minority clans. Together, the EAJ program and partner organizations trained more than 140 Justice Promoters nationally. 

Clients appreciate having a voice in shaping the outcomes of their cases, which enhances their sense of agency, their impression of the legal system, and their perception of fairness.”

USAID

EAJ Program Evaluation

The trained Justice Promoters responded to clients with a wide variety of justice needs, including divorce, inheritance, familial maintenance, land disputes, and incidents of sexual and gender-based violence. In 2022, nearly 800 cases were received by EAJ partner organizations through the justice promoters. Notably, more than 80% of these cases were brought by women.

An evaluation commissioned by USAID looked at whether the Justice Promoters approach is effective at assisting aggrieved parties, which it assessed through client satisfaction surveys and interviews. The evaluation noted, “EAJ was highly successful in helping clients to be satisfied with their experience in the justice system and improving their confidence and knowledge, suggesting that this innovative type of access to justice programming is worth continuing. The ability of Justice Promoters to navigate different justice pathways, whether through clan elders, religious leaders, or referrals to the formal court system, helped clients secure their legal rights and achieve favorable outcomes that would have otherwise been unavailable to them.”

Notably, USAID’s evaluation was particularly positive about the emphasis on client empowerment, stating: “Clients frequently mention feeling empowered within the legal process. This empowerment stems not only from the resolution of their case but also the guidance and support provided by Justice Promoters, who enable clients to actively participate in decision-making and problem-solving. Clients appreciate having a voice in shaping the outcomes of their cases, which enhances their sense of agency, their impression of the legal system, and their perception of fairness.”

Clients frequently mention feeling empowered within the legal process. This empowerment stems not only from the resolution of their case but also the guidance and support provided by Justice Promoters, who enable clients to actively participate in decision-making and problem-solving.”

USAID

EAJ Program Evaluation

By conclusion of the EAJ program, it reached 41,967 Somali citizens through activities including as legal awareness, legal education, or legal representation; and it helped manage 2,899 legal cases. The people-centered approach of Justice Promoters pilot was the first of its kind in Somalia, proving this a viable approach that can help overcome some of the challenges posed by legal pluralism.

Learn more about ABA ROLI’s work across Africa.