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Using Traditional Practices to Improve the Justice System

Indigenous justice practices and philosophies have been important in the development of restorative justice processes such as conferencing and circles. Increasingly, governments, development agencies, and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are realizing the potential of such traditional practices to meet the justice needs of marginalized populations, resolve issues of court backlogs, and to enable communities to own and resolve their own conflicts. In the Philippines, such problems are being resolved by enhancing traditional systems. Based on the use of mediation and conciliation by local elected leaders, the Barangay Justice System (BJS) is the focus of an NGO effort to provide access to justice and empower communities to participate in justice reform.

First recognized by presidential decree in 1978, the BJS is based on the lowest level of government, the barangay. The system consists of an elected barangay captain and a ‘peace-seeking committee’ that will hear cases of conflicts. This process starts with the filing of a complaint and a mediation session facilitated by the barangay captain or other elected official. If this first meeting is unable to bring about resolution, a conciliation panel chosen by the parties to the conflict will hear the parties and their witnesses and develop several possibilities for resolution. An agreement reached through the process is legally binding and recognized by the courts.  

Since it is linked to a local jurisdiction, the BJS addresses only conflicts between individuals living in the same or neighbouring communities (barangays). In criminal cases, the system addresses the conflict only if the possible penalty is not more than one year in prison or 5000 pesos. The BJS has been criticized for gender bias, a hierarchical system based on patronage, and a failure to adequately help citizens understand the system and their right in it. These negatives can lead to misuse of the barangay system and further marginalization of groups such as women.

To address these shortcomings, the Gerry Roxas Foundation, with funding from USAID, created the Barangay Justice Service System in 1998. This programme trains community leaders, many of them women, as Barangay Justice Advocates. Their role is to educate community members about their rights, to help resolve conflicts, and monitor the processes used in the Barangay Justice System. Training consists of

  • The barangay law (known as Katarungang Pambarangay law)

  • Paralegal courses on he Bill of Rights, Family Code, Penal Code, and basic remedial law

  • Basic counselling skills

  • Mediation skills

  • Participatory facilitation methods

The vision for this programme is to develop "peaceful, happy families and empowered communities sustained by a responsive justice system." According to USAID, the BJSS has mobilized 1,150 volunteers as Barangay Justice Advocates. Since the implementation of the pilot project in 1998, the Barangay Justice Service System project has reached over 1,000 communities and 85-90% of the cases referred to the BJS are resolved there.


Resources used:

Access to Justice for Families and Communities

Barangay Justice Service System Project

Improving the Philippine Justice System

Non-State Justice Systems in Bangladesh and the Philippines


Lynette Parker
June 2004

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