A Journey through Colombia’s Constitutional Court’s tutela design challenge

Margaret Hagan
May 7, 2019 · 6 min read

Over Spring Break, I had the pleasure of visiting Bogota, Colombia, where a former student of mine, Santiago Pardo, has set up a Legal Design Lab at the University of Los Andes.

Santiago Pardo (a constitutional lawyer) and his colleague Santiago de Francisco (a design professor) are doing a half-year project with the Colombian Constitutional Court, to redesign how people interact with it and how it processes people’s cases. They’re doing it through a semester-long class at Los Andes, and a partnership with the court that gives them substantial access to do observations, interviews, prototyping, reviews, and test runs on site.

I went down to visit the class, the court partner, and see the problems + designs in action (midway through their design process). Since I’m teaching a California-focused Justice + Poverty Innovation class at the same time, at our Stanford Legal Design Lab, it was a great chance for some inspiration, cross-country learning, and strategy shares.

Universidad de Los Andes

The Tutela as a Design Opportunity

Anyone in Colombia has a constitutional right to file a ‘tutela’ with any court in the country, if they feel their constitutional rights are violated. This could be if they’re not getting adequate medical care, educational rights, or other of their social-economic-political rights guaranteed in the constitution.

A tutela can take any form — written, oral, formal, informal. The goal is to make it easy for normal people to assert their rights and get protection from the courts. Any court has to accept them, and to decide on whether to grant or deny them within a short time. The Constitutional Court reviews them, and decides which to consider in depth for decisions. If a tutela is granted, the person gets an order they can take back to their doctor, insurance provider, school, employer, or other party to get them to act in accordance with what the constitution and the court says.

An Access to Justice System that’s Overwhelming

All of this means is that the Tutela system is very accessible — and highly used. When other parts of the government and society break down with slowness, inaccessibility, or poor service, a person can go to the courts, file a Tutela, and have an order to compel action to be taken on their behalf.

It’s an inspiring system in making rights actionable and government accessible, but it’s also totally overwhelming. There are huge numbers of filing, and it’s a giant set of tasks for the courts to process. So that’s the opportunity:

How can the court make the system accessible and empower people to best know how to use it, while also helping the court and its staff, judges, student interns, and others to work with efficiency, dignity, and comprehensiveness?

There’s clearly some opportunity for tech and service design, and that’s what the Legal Design Lab project is about — doing the design work to best scope out the opportunities and begin running prototypes, lab tests, field tests, and pilots.

What does the Tutela System look like in the Court?

Here are some photos of the Constitutional Court’s tutela process. In a later post, we will go through the design proposals that the Los Andes teams have proposed and that the court will consider piloting.

A truck delivers Tutela filings to the Constitutional Court, from all kinds of other courts across the country.

The huge bags of Tutelas come in for processing.

Then they get unpacked from the bags (formerly Great Britain Royal Post bags….) to begin their journey through the courts.

They’re packed in plastic with cover sheets that help them be more visible. But there is no digital or radio tracking of the packages right now.

They are organized in the basement before journeying upstairs, for a few rounds of processing and review.

They’re stacked up outside the offices for initial entry into the computer system.

Then the plastic packages are reviewed and entered into the court system.

They can also be filed in person in the Constitutional Court at the clerk’s counter — another stream of tutela comes into the flow.

Once they’re into the system, they travel to a giant room of law school interns who spend a year in the Court, doing review of Tutela claims. They work in a recently renovated part of the court (though still without the ability to open the windows. All of the court has bullet proof glass, after the Court building had been taken over by a guerrilla group in 1985, and many people were held hostage and then killed during a military raid of the siege. When the Court was rebuilt after that siege, the dominant design theme has become physical security).

From there, the law students flag which tutelas might be the best fits for judicial review. The Constitutional Court has monthly sessions to review a small percentage of the tutelas, to rule on them.

When the court has ruled on its handful of reviewed tutelas, they publish the opinions on the web. They aspire to be transparent, participatory, and trusted — so there is a great opportunity to figure out how to make this system (that is already highly used) function in a way that is most beneficial to people protecting their rights, the court managing its efficiency, and the overall functioning of the government improve.

Stay tuned for a coming post with more proposals on how to redesign parts of the Tutela System!

Legal Design and Innovation

Margaret Hagan

Written by

Director of the Legal Design Lab @StanfordLaw's @StanfordCLP, Lecturer at @Stanforddschool. https://www.linkedin.com/pub/margaret-hagan/41/189/a7b

Legal Design and Innovation

Curated learnings from Stanford's Legal Design Lab about the future of legal services

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