Most poor people in the developing world are governed by overlapping systems of customary and formal law. The core hypothesis of this paper is that the poor make rational, albeit severely constrained, choices in navigating this dual legal system, weighing the repressive aspects of the custom against the formal sector's focus on punishing perpetrators rather than providing restitution to victims/plaintifs. We present a simple model of forum choice and test it using new survey data on over 4,500 legal disputes taken to either customary or formal institutions in rural Liberia. Consistent with the model, survey evidence shows that (i) plaintifs facing a disadvantageous pairing under customary law (e.g., ethnic minorities suing ethnic majority members, etc.) are more likely to choose formal law, and (ii) customary remedies appear to be Pareto superior to formal verdicts, in the sense of providing greater satisfaction to plaintifs while engendering less dissatisfaction among defendants. We highlight implications of our results for the design of legal empowerment initiatives.
Sanderfur, J.; Siddiqi, B. Citizen or subject? Forum shopping and legal pluralism in rural Liberia. [IGC Working Paper]. International Growth Centre (IGC), UK (2012) 28 pp.