Endeavors to resolve disputes through informal means trace back to practices and traditions from time immemorial in many societies and pre-date modern formal justice systems. Customary and informal mechanisms are deeply entrenched in many parts of the world and act as critical pathways in justice journeys, especially for women, children, and remote, poor and minority populations. They continue to play a significant part in people's lives, dealing with matters ranging from theft to property disputes, to marriage and divorce, to inheritance. Often, customary and informal systems enjoy legitimacy in their communities and are easily accessible, quick, and affordable when compared to the distances, time and costs related to formal justice systems. And during disaster or conflict, when the formal justice system is not operational, there may be no other option.
Customary and informal systems exhibit different characteristics from their formal state counterparts, including an emphasis on restorative justice, flexible rules and procedures, and consent-based negotiated or mediated solutions. While advantageous in some contexts, these characteristics can also create tension with international human rights standards and the rule of law, particularly where harmful traditional practices or patriarchal interpretations conflict with the rights of justice seekers. The context in which customary and informal systems operate is important and given their extensive usage, so are links to the formal justice system and accountability mechanisms, consistent with international standards.
As the international community works to achieve the 2030 Agenda, there is growing realization of the importance of including customary and informal justice systems on the path to realize SDG 16, building effective and accountable institutions at all levels, providing access to justice for all, and promoting peaceful and inclusive societies.