Increasing access to justice

Program officers discuss new work for Mott’s Civil Society team

Colleen Julies of Social Change Assistance Trust speaks with paralegals at the Beaufort West Legal Advice and Development Office in South Africa.
Colleen Julies (third from left) of Social Change Assistance Trust speaks with paralegals at the Beaufort West Legal Advice and Development Office in South Africa. Photo: Zeke Du Plessis, Courtesy Social Change Assistance Trust

Having access to effective remedies for our legal problems can mean the difference between a society that benefits only the most powerful and one that honors the dignity of everyone. But for 5.1 billion people around the word — a staggering two-thirds of the world’s population — there is no real access to justice. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation seeks to change that by supporting the growing number of civil society organizations (CSOs) working to focus global attention and resources on closing the vast justice gap.

In this Q&A, Mott program officers Ross Maclaren and Lorenzo Wakefield discuss the challenges and opportunities in the access to justice field and the Foundation’s commitment to help seek real justice solutions for vulnerable people around the world.

Mott: Tell us more about the justice gap.

Ross Maclaren headshot.
Ross Maclaren.

Ross Maclaren: The numbers are alarming and hard to fathom. Globally, 5.1 billion people are unable to solve their legal problems because they lack access to meaningful justice solutions. According to the 2019 Justice for All report, people lack access for various reasons. Some struggle in extreme poverty or are trapped by modern-day slavery, while others are victims of crimes that go unreported, including the denial of public services. And the vast majority are vulnerable to abuse and economic exploitation because they don’t own property, they lack legal identity or proof of housing, or they work in the so-called informal sector.

Mott: There is growing momentum for increasing access to justice. Give us a quick overview of recent developments.

Lorenzo Wakefield headshot.
Lorenzo Wakefield. Photo: Cristina Wright

Lorenzo Wakefield: For the first time, justice outcomes were reviewed by the United Nations (U.N.) as part of a global development agenda — the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In the past, access to justice might have been reviewed under a rights-based treaty, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but never as part of a development agenda. The inclusion of SDG 16, with its focus on promoting peaceful societies and providing access to justice for all, has laid the foundation for countries to support justice outcomes more clearly.

Maclaren: The summer’s U.N. High-Level Political Forum (HLPF), where progress toward achieving the SDGs was reviewed, and the recent U.N. SDG Summit have focused governments, multilateral organizations, civil society groups and researchers on building a strong, evidence-based case for putting justice at the center of the development agenda. There also were justice-focused gatherings earlier this year, such as the World Justice Forum in the Hague and the Open Government Partnership Summit in Ottawa. While much remains to be done, it feels like 2019 has certainly been the “Year of Justice.” This is an exciting time, with new opportunities to take stock of the current justice landscape and forge a path toward meaningful access to justice for all.

Young professional woman speaks at a podium in front of an audience. To the left of her is a powerpoint presentation with the image of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) icon for for SDG#16: Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions
Dr. Alaa Murabit, a U.N.-appointed advocate for justice, discusses the global justice gap at the Pathfinders “Decade of Action” event during the U.N. SDG Summit.
Photo: Ayano Hisa/NYU Center on International Cooperation

Mott: Mott’s work includes a focus on ensuring that CSOs actively participate in global discussions like the HLPF and SDG Summit. Why is this important?

Maclaren: Participation from CSOs in review processes allows for a more holistic understanding of what justice means and what it looks like for ordinary people. While many governments are gradually coming to see the need and benefit of using different approaches to address justice issues, they are nevertheless the guardians of formal institutions and may be more inclined to see the justice landscape through that lens. As a result, they run the risk of presenting an incomplete picture of their country’s justice needs during official SDG reviews.

Wakefield: CSOs may be better positioned to meet the needs of ordinary people through informal or alternative justice approaches, instead of daunting court systems. Through our grantmaking, we’ve seen that CSOs from Africa are at the forefront of providing justice services to marginalized communities. They address critical community needs — despite having limited resources and little to no support or recognition from their respective governments. That’s why, for them, the HLPF was a critical moment to showcase their work on a world stage and justify why it’s important for countries to come to the table with sustainable forms of financing.

Mott: Tell us more about the Justice for All report. How will it help advance efforts to secure justice reforms?

Maclaren: The Justice for All report was produced by the Task Force on Justice, which is an initiative of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies. This new report will be a key reference work for efforts to accelerate the access to justice agenda, just as the report of the U.N. Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor helped to launch the field in 2008. Mott was eager to support Pathfinders’ work on this landmark report, which gives us a clearer picture of the challenges faced in overcoming the justice gap. Justice reforms have often focused on institutions that are distant from people and fail to serve their needs. The report proposes a different approach, putting people at the center of justice systems and justice at the heart of sustainable development.

Mott: Let’s talk more about the people-centered justice approach. What does that mean?

Maclaren: Justice reform has traditionally focused on institutional reform. But one issue that is consistently highlighted by access to justice research is how seldom people rely on or find resolution of their justice problems through formal institutions. So, the notion of “people-centered justice” focuses attention on whom justice is supposed to work for, rather than how it is supposed to work. It shifts the focus away from how institutions can be more efficient and focuses instead on how people with a legal or justice issue can understand the issue they are facing and how best to resolve it without necessarily having to use cumbersome, formal processes.

Mott: Mott’s work on access to justice also focuses on expanding community-based justice models to more countries in Africa. How does this grassroots work feed into global discussion and action?

Wakefield: The grassroots justice organizations and paralegals are the ones who are most familiar with the needs of local communities. Their real experiences of helping vulnerable people resolve their legal problems and the knowledge they share are what drives the work on regional and global levels, and we are working to ensure their voices are heard.

Mott: What other promising access to justice work is on the horizon?

Wakefield: We’re beginning to see some countries take their obligations more seriously when it comes to financing community paralegals. In Sierra Leone, for example, the Legal Aid Board has begun supporting paralegals with public funding. Although that funding is not enough to wholly support the work of community paralegals, it is a promising start. And in South Africa, the Department of Justice and Constitutional Development finally provided a roadmap of its support for community paralegals.

Maclaren: New research is beginning to lay out the economic benefits of providing sustainable financial resources for access to justice, which is ultimately what we’re aiming to achieve. Several countries also have begun analyzing the economic costs of inaction vs. the benefits of acting on this issue. Mott and other funders will look at how we can best support people-centered justice work at the global and community levels. We also need to assess how we can marshal resources and capitalize on the growing interest in people-centered justice that has emerged during this Year of Justice.