A New Guide Shows the Way Forward on Expanding Access to Justice

Two women reading paperwork together.
A paralegal in Western Nepal helps a villager with government paperwork. © Kishor Sharma/Majority World for the Open Society Foundations

This July, the member states of the United Nations will be taking stock of progress towards the ambitious targets for global development they agreed in 2015 with the establishment of the world’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). A High Level Political Forum will review progress on six of the goals, including for the first time Goal 16—dedicated to building Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions.

With its commitment to “ensuring equal access to justice for all”, Goal 16 recognizes that effective development requires the capacity to resolve disputes equitably—in areas that deeply affect people’s everyday lives, such as health, housing, employment and the environment. 

Yet when policymakers track progress in the justice field, they traditionally focus on traditional “justice” institutions, such as police, courts, and prisons. This narrow approach might look at total national justice budgets, the numbers of particular types of justice personnel, or a court’s clearance rate. Yet it is clear that these data alone do not capture what access to justice means for most people around the world.

In health and education sectors, strategies that understand progress from the perspective of the “consumer” are standard; policymakers have long used surveys and other measurement tools to understand people’s needs and experiences. 

A similar approach is needed for justice—through legal needs surveys that look at what works from the perspective of users, rather than from that of legal professionals and institutions.

In Australia, for example, the Law and Justice Foundation of New South Wales has pioneered a strategy which puts legal needs at the center of justice reform efforts. Through three interconnected goals—1) identifying legal needs of the community, 2) identifying what works to address needs and 3) supporting justice policy development—the Foundation has helped shape reform of the justice system. Their work has shown that poor and marginalized communities are more likely to face legal problems than the general population, but they are also less likely to take action to address them  From their strategy, for example, they identified four key themes that to be effective, legal assistance services to disadvantaged people should be targeted to those most in need, joined-up with other legal and non-legal services, timely, and appropriate to the needs and capabilities of the users.

These themes now underpin the Australian National Strategic Framework for Legal Assistance Services [pdf] as well as the funding mechanism that supports that Framework. They also underpin other government initiatives, such as the New South Wales government’s Civil Justice Action Plan [pdf].

Despite the valuable findings that emerge from legal needs surveys, their use remains sporadic. In an attempt to remedy this situation, the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) joined forces in 2016 to take stock of methodologies and good practices for surveying legal needs. Our newly released OECD-Justice Initiative Guide on Legal Needs Surveys and Access to Justice offers a roadmap for measuring people’s legal needs.

The guide brings together lessons learned from more than 55 national surveys conducted by governments and civil society organizations in more than 30 jurisdictions in the last 25 years, including measurement initiatives in Canada, England and Wales, Korea, Nepal, South Africa, Sierra Leone, and Ukraine.

It provides a framework for understanding and measuring legal needs as well as methodological guidance and model questions to capture three core components of effective access to justice: 

  • The nature and extent of unmet legal and justice needs;
  • The impact of unmet legal and justice needs on individuals, the community and the state; and
  • How specific models of legal assistance and dispute resolution are utilized to meet needs.

For UN members meeting to assess progress on delivering “equal access to justice for all” this guide should provide an invaluable tool: it shows the way forward for the development of national tools to assess, and more importantly, to improve access to justice.

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