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Opinion and Analysis: Law and Justice | Participation

Communal Justices of the Peace Bring Popular Power to Venezuela Court System

Caracas (Venezuelanalysis.com) – At the local level, a movement of communal justice is gradually spreading an alternative to the traditional adversarial court system to settle civil disputes. Venezuela’s independence leader Simon Bolivar first stipulated in the 1819 Constitution that there should be a Peace Judge (juez de la paz) in every parish to perform marriages, register births and deaths. However, during the last ten years, with the addition of “communal” to the title, the revolutionary version has developed as part of the process of institutionalizing popular power. In ten municipalities, several hundred communal judges facilitate resolution of long-standing local disputes. Their approach finds “win-win” solutions to conflicts in which each side learns to settle their own disputes.

During two separate meetings with Mylvia Acosta, Venezuelanalysis.com learned how the 2012 Organic Law on Communal Justice of the Peace works in practice.  During her four years as a communal peace judge in the town of Charallave, municipality of Cristobal Rojas, Acosta has helped to settle more than 100 cases. She insists on sharing credit for resolutions with community members. A local community people’s assembly in Charallave elected her to a four-year renewable term to serve as their communal judge. All residents in the town are eligible to participate in the assembly and valid elections require a 51% quorum of residents. Since all communal judges serve as volunteers, without salary, she only works on two or three cases a month.

Acosta is also a mother of three, a student of social work and public administration and representative of the disability rights community. (She lost one of her legs when she was a young adult.) She commutes by a 40-minute train ride from her home in Charallave to school and work in Caracas.

The Law and the Practice

According to the Law, judges of communal peace need no formal legal training but must have basic competency in rules guiding inheritance, property ownership and renting. They must also be citizens, at least 25 years old, literate, and live in the local area or commune where they will be practicing. The Law bans them from assuming leadership of a political organization, trade union, church or other influential organization while they are serving as judges. Acosta explained that this last requirement aims to prevent bias or political influence in the proceedings. Acosta believes that in addition to these formal requirements, an effective judge of communal peace must be a conscientious listener and a role model of calm in situations of high emotion.

While the Law and Constitution recognize the role of communal judges of the peace, Mylvia Acosta insists her authority is moral and her effectiveness comes from two commitments she makes to conflicting parties. First, she promises them that there will be no “winners” or “losers” as happens when civil courts take over. Resolution of the conflict will only happen after both parties agree to a mutually beneficial settlement. Conflicting parties also bring their cases to her because they will not have to pay for lawyers or wait the typical five years before the Regional Court will hear their case.

Acosta responded to Venezuelanalysis.com’s request for an example with the following account. “There’s an apartment complex in our neighborhood, called Charavi, where a dispute over the use of communal space had gone unresolved for five years. The people in five apartments had been clinging to communal space they were using for parking their motorcycles. The people in the remaining 95 apartments wanted to use the space to build a childcare center. Tensions were at the breaking point. Violence seemed imminent. 

“Some of the 95 asked me to resolve the problem. I got together with each side separately to hear their version of the dispute. Then I called an assembly for everyone who lived in the complex. I personally visited the homes of the five who monopolized the communal space with their motorcycles to make sure they would attend.”

Venezuelanalysis.com asked. “But why would they attend? Afterall, they were in such a minority position.”

“No, they came because I promised them that they would not lose their parking space.” Acosta continued. “A hundred people showed up to the assemblies because everyone cared about the how we would use the space. We announced the meetings by megaphone and put leaflets under every door. We needed three assemblies to figure out how to resolve the dispute so everyone would be satisfied.”

“But how?” Venezuelanalysis wondered aloud.

“Finally someone in the assembly proposed that they prepare the land on the side of the building for new parking spaces and use the communal land in the front for the childcare center that the majority wanted. Now, you see, there are 20 parking spaces and a childcare center. It was a community idea and everyone won. Parking even improved.”

“This process is very different from what happens at the regional courts. With us, there are no ‘summons’ or ‘injunctions’ or ‘orders’ or fines. We simply invite people to a meeting. They are not forced to attend. But they always come because they know that no one loses, the proceedings are informal, easy to understand and open for everyone to speak.”

Mylvia Acosta exudes a calm confidence. When asked how she stays calm when emotions in a dispute may run high, she reported that she knows she is a role model for the community. And her success in helping to establish and maintain community peace is her motivation. In addition, she has seen how the process teaches people to exercise their own power. At the assemblies, they learn how to settle their own disputes. The next time they clash over parking spaces, garbage removal or any one of a hundred daily irritants, they settle the dispute without her intervention.

Acosta’s commitment and approach embody the principles that govern communal justices of the peace as elaborated in Article 7 of the 2012 Law. The first principle is self-determination (protagonismo popular). Other principles include: social responsibility, equality—including gender equality, defense of human rights, honesty, transparency, equity, efficacy, mediation, simplicity, orality, accessibility and speed. The Law also requires that judges make annual reports to the assemblies that elected them.

Acosta and other judges are working to amend parts of the Law. They say that the provision that cases must be resolved within 15 days is too rigid and unenforceable. They are also working on developing a less formal, more popular-power oriented curriculum to train new judges. Most importantly, they want more public support for the process to recruit and train new judges so every municipality in Venezuela may benefit from them.