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Technology and infrastructure widen access to justice

Interview - July 27, 2015

The Ministry of Justice and Law’s new website, LegalApp, provides online legal advice and aims to bring justice closer to people. It is part of the government’s efforts to widen access to rights and enhance the trust between citizens and the administration of justice. Yesid Reyes, Minister of Justice and Law, discusses the advances in infrastructure and technology that are changing the legal scene in Colombia.


Colombia is going through an exceptional moment, its macro economy has been growing for years and it is now facing clear objectives as explained by President Santos, which are peace, education and equality. In this context, I would like you to provide a global insight of how you see the work that the President together with the government are doing for continued and sustainable growth in Colombia.

It’s a very important job due to the social intervention they are doing, especially since it has an impact on different aspects of social life. It also has a significant effect on justice matters, when understood from the perspective of repression, it receives the most media coverage as it has a clear social component and the President is investing heavily in this matter.

Therefore, these three axes you mentioned are the fundamentals of the President’s second term of office: peace, equality and education; the three essential components in the concept of justice. Through the aforementioned axes, President Santos wants to achieve a more equal country, that’s why we believe the current government model is so important.

Those aims lead to peace precisely, which is surely attracting international attention to the country. What is exactly the role of the Minister of Justice in achieving peace in 2015?

We are part of the team of President Santos. Peace, however, is an issue directly dealt with by the president with the help of the consulting commission in Havana. But of course there are matters related to peace in which we work together with the government. For example, everything related to drugs, which has been the object of some agreements in Havana, and of course, planning what may be the legal solution of the conflict by implementing all the mechanisms of transitional justice.

What is your vision of that conflict? How can it be solved?

Those are issues directly dealt with by the president. Any official statement will be done by him, precisely to guarantee the progress of the negotiations.

Perfect, we respect that. The Ministry of Justice has set up a series of proposals aimed to reform the country’s judicial system in order to meet higher levels of justice. I would like to ask you how you see legal security in Colombia, especially compared to neighboring countries in the Latin American region.

Colombia is a country with a long-standing legal tradition, so I would say that legal security in Colombia is very good. However, we are working continuously to enhance the different aspects of legal security, lately we have been working for a purpose we are interested in: to bring justice closer to citizens. To enhance the perception that a Colombian citizen has about the administration of justice is mainly based on making citizens feel closer to justice.

For this purpose we are working on matters such as courthouses, departments of social services, conciliation centers and programs for the deconcentration of justice. Not only through centers that allow people to contact the justice administration in big cities like Bogota, but also through technology. We launched a website called LegalApp through which people can report their concerns related to justice in a very simple way. There they can type things like “my husband hits me” and the website redirects them to a part of the site that deals with domestic violence and helps people identify their situation in order to know if they are indeed being abused, and it also informs them of where, how and what they can do about their situation. There’s a very easy explanation of the procedure, tips to know whether or not they need an attorney and what authorities near them can help solve the conflict.

LegalApp was created simply because we hope that by the end of the year the application will be available for smartphones. Those are examples of what we do to bring justice closer to people and to enhance the trust between citizens and the administration of justice. This will be especially important in a post conflict era where the State has to reach each and every corner of the national territory, not only through infrastructure and social help, but also through deconcentrated justice.

All these elements, both technology and bringing justice closer to the citizens were part of the contribution of justice to the competitiveness of the country. In fact, there was a meeting recently to discuss the competitiveness related to legal security. Apart from these elements, do you think there are other challenges, other plans in your Ministry to enhance the competitiveness of the country?

We are working on specific issues that can help us, for example fighting transnational bribery. At the end of 2014 we introduced a bill directed towards that goal, not specifically to the introduction of criminal liability of legal entities, which is a subject both complex and unnecessary in this situation, but specifically to design procedures to apply administrative sanctions in cases of transnational bribery. Therefore, we have initiatives directed to improve the reliability and the legal security, and other subjects that may seem less important such as compliance of regulations. The State is committed to issuing what will be known as single norms of each sector. The Ministry of Justice has just finished a document that compiles all the decrees related to administration of justice from 1886 to this day; this will allow a much faster and accurate inquiry. This provides legal security. We are also working with the government to issue regulations that are as technical as possible. All these projects are aimed to improve the legal security.

You mentioned before the war on drugs, and that’s precisely an essential element in a country like Colombia, and you’re also receiving international recognition for your efforts. I would like to ask you if you’re working on efficient alternatives to fight drug trafficking. An example would be the program of restitution of illegal crops. Are there any other alternatives or similar programs to combat drug trafficking?

That’s a very good alternative we are working on. We have an alliance, the Alianza Buen Gobierno (Alliance for Good Government), formed by the Unit of Territorial Consolidation, the Ministry of Justice and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. The purpose of this alliance is to eradicate all the illegal crops with support of the State in order to provide job alternatives to the population responsible for these crops. We have many programs: we have promoted a policy of crop substitution whereby coca cultivation was replaced by coffee, cocoa beans, sugar cane, pepper, fish farming, dairy products and rubber. With these programs we intend to offer job alternatives for people to voluntarily stop working with illegal crops.

In the south of the country there are massive programs for the cultivation of cocoa beans and pepper which are self-sustainable. There are programs in the north of the country also, in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where we are working with the Kogui indigenous people. This is very interesting because it adds a very relevant social component: it links the indigenous culture with a system of substitution of products and alternative development, respecting the people’s view of the world. This program is also working in Putumayo and some places in the Chocoana jungle.

I gather that Colombia is expressing interest in some international forums related to shared goods. How is this matter progressing?

It’s something we are working on with new policies for the war on drugs and we are also diversifying this war with two different variables: the first one has to do with the quality of the drug, the type of drugs we are trying to fight, and the second one is directly related to the links in the chain of drug trafficking. Colombia has been leading the approach for a diverse answer to these two variables, as the steps we have to take are not the same when it comes to the different types of drugs and the different links in the productive chain. We have to distinguish not only the non-intervention of criminal law in the least serious cases of drug consumption, and the intervention of criminal law in serious cases of drug cartels, but also in intermediate cases. We will stand firm in our position to find alternatives in the war on drugs and we made emphasis in Vienna on the need to strengthen the projects of alternative development.

One of the countries with which you collaborated in the war on drugs is the United States, which is also Colombia’s main commercial partner and the country where our interview will be published. I would like to ask you about the accomplishments and challenges you find in the relation between the United States and Colombia in terms of justice.

We are in permanent contact with the United States, regarding drug trafficking as you mentioned, and we also collaborate jointly from a judicial point of view, both on a governmental level from the Ministry of Justice and on more specific areas related to the Prosecutor’s Office. The Prosecutor’s Office is in permanent contact with American authorities and our judges. This has allowed a fluent relation with the United States and hasn’t suffered any setback, they are permanently offering their collaboration and we require it as well.

One of the examples is that the United States is looking at Colombia’s courthouses. Can you tell us about the United States’ concerns in this program?

It is a program that brings justice closer to citizens, that’s the main virtue. One of the main concerns people had was the idea that not only justice is distant, so are the people in charge of imparting it. This is a little intimidating, sometimes the procedures are slow and there’s a rupture between City, State and Justice. The courthouses are places that hold many State institutions. For example mediators, people whose job is to help solve conflicts easily for citizens. They are in charge of minor conflicts. What may seem minor to some people is not minor at all for the people that need a solution for their conflicts. That’s why institutions like this are important. The department of social services brings a lot of help to these people; seven out of 10 people that are undergoing a domestic violence situation reach the department of social services. If needed, we can have police inspections in the courthouses. If the conflict still remains unsolved we can also have a Prosecutor’s Office in the courthouses. We can even have a department of legal medicine if needed. We are redesigning the courthouses; we don’t want an average courthouse for all the national territory. We want to analyze the situation of the place where the courthouse is in order to understand the problems people have there and provide the necessary institutions. That is what we are working on currently, some courthouses have judges and probably sometime this year there will be a law promoted by the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice in Kolbi that targets the fast investigation and prosecution in minor cases that have a huge impact. The courthouses will have judges for minor cases that bring justice closer to citizens. We hope that the success the courthouses have had will be replicated throughout the national territory.

To sum up, can you tell us the main virtues you see in both the Colombian and American judicial systems?

The Colombian judicial system is of European tradition. It’s very different from the Anglo Saxon origins that the American system has. However, in the last 15 to 20 years the advantages of the Anglo Saxon concept of justice have spread all over the world; first, in European countries with slower but long-standing progress, and then from Chile to the rest of South America.

We now have a system with a tendency towards orality and solutions that are more pragmatic than those of the court, strictly formal, that we inherited from countries like Spain. We still need to make some necessary changes in these systems. Both the Prosecutor’s Office and the Ministry of Justice are working on a bill to make the necessary reforms that have a relatively simple explanation: The origins of the Ministries of Justice we talked about are cultural. Therefore, we are importing a judicial system that was born in a completely different culture and we are in the process of adjustment.

The reforms we intend to make will try to solve the problems we have in the administration of justice, especially regarding criminal justice where there have been clashes between norms that have Anglo Saxon origin and our own cultural issues. In general, the experiment of bringing this fundamentally oral and open system to Colombia has been impossible.

What is your analysis regarding the designation of a representative from the United States, Bernard Aronson, who has pleased both the Colombian government and FARC?

It is a public show of support and it demonstrates trust in the peace process that Colombia is promoting.

When President Santos named you minister, the media talked about statements that your colleagues made about you being an excellent jurist. What are those two virtues you think you have that you brought to the ministry?

I have spent my professional life in two different areas: one is the academic area, lecturing in universities, which I like and have always done except in this period as Minister of Justice. Moreover, I have worked as a professional. I’ve also had very close contact with the Administration of Justice for the last 30 years, even though I had never been a public officer until now. That’s why I know the needs of the judiciary very well and I know the efforts the Colombian judges make. That is not always visible and it’s usually easier to highlight the bad things. However, in Colombia, judges have literally been killed for defending the Administration of Justice, and this is not a metaphor. Of course I also recognize some failures of our Administration of Justice, regarding both staff and management. Therefore, we can make a good combination in order to try to promote new ideas of how justice should be imparted in Colombia.