Formal law and customary change: A lab-in-field experiment in Ethiopia

Francesco Cecchi*, Mequanint Biset Melesse

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

10 Citations (Scopus)


Do customary courts strategically adapt arbitration outcomes if they face increased competition by the formal law? Through a lab-in-field experiment with villagers and real customary judges in rural Ethiopia, we show that post-arbitration payouts to agents disfavored by the customary system are downwardly biased. Introducing a costly formal law reduces these biases and draws the decisions of customary judges significantly closer to the law. At the same time agents advantaged by the law do not exploit their increased bargaining power. Instead, they make offers that are less advantageous to themselves and, in equilibrium, only a fraction of them make direct use of the formal law. Our results suggest that local customary dispute resolution institutions may have a role to play in shifting preexisting customs toward a desired outcome. In areas where formal legal institutions have limited outreach, the effects of increased competition between formal law and customary legal institutions may rise from changes in the latter, rather than from plaintiffs seeking justice under the rule of law.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)67-85
JournalJournal of Economic Behavior and Organization
Publication statusPublished - 2016


  • Customary courts
  • Ethiopia
  • Formal law
  • Lab-in-field experiment
  • Social norms


Dive into the research topics of 'Formal law and customary change: A lab-in-field experiment in Ethiopia'. Together they form a unique fingerprint.

Cite this