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Delivering Justice to the Poor: Evidence from a field experiment in Liberia

By: Justin Sandefur, Bilal Siddiqi

Can progressive, statutory legal reform meaningfully affect the lives of the poor? In most parts of the world, the poor and socially disadvantaged remain outside the ambit of formal law and rely on customary institutions for their justice needs (CLEP, 2008; de Soto, 2000; Mamdani, 1996). We develop a simple model of forum choice in which the poor weigh the repressive aspects of the custom against the formal system’s high costs and punitive approach to justice, and test it using new survey data on over 4,500 legal disputes taken to a range of customary and formal legal institutions in rural Liberia. We find (i) that plaintiffs facing a disadvantageous pairing under the custom choose the formal system, but (ii) that customary remedies are overall Pareto superior to formal verdicts.

These results suggest that the poor would benefit most from access to low-cost, remedial justice that incorporates the progressive features of the formal law. We then present the results of a randomized controlled trial of a legal empowerment intervention in Liberia designed around these basic principles, providing pro bono mediation and advocacy services by means of community paralegals trained in the formal law. We find strong and robust impacts on justice outcomes, as well as significant downstream welfare benefits—including increases in household and child food security of 0.24 and 0.38 standard deviations, respectively. We interpret these results as preliminary evidence that there are large socioeconomic gains to be had from improving access to justice and reviving dead letter laws. Moreover, our results suggest that these gains can be achieved not by bringing the rural poor into the formal domain of magistrates’ courts, government offices, and police stations, but by bringing the formal law into the organizational forms of the custom through third-party mediation and advocacy