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“The Most Significant Access to Justice Gathering in a Decade”

David Steven, the head of the secretariat of the Task Force on Justice, wrapped up three days of meetings in the Peace Palace on the challenge of delivering on Sustainable Development Goal 16.3. He looked at a fulfilled and tired audience at the end of the 9th edition of the Innovating Justice Forum, the Justice Partnership Forum, and a ministerial meeting.

The gathering produced an important political document that can now be invoked and used to guide strategy making and implementation: the Hague Declaration on Equal Access to Justice for All by 2030. A large group of ministers of justice – Afghanistan, Argentina, Canada, Ethiopia, Gambia, Guinea, Indonesia, Libya, the Netherlands, Niger, Palestinian Territories, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Timor-Leste, Tunisia, Uganda, and Ukraine – together with ministers for international cooperation, leaders of international organizations, and the Elders set five significant priorities:

  • Put people and their legal needs at the center of justice systems.Understand what people need and want when they seek justice, which obstacles they face, and what kind of justice they receive.
  • Solve justice problems.Transform justice institutions and services through a broader range of justice providers, using high-tech as well as low-tech innovative solutions, based on data, evidence and learning, while taking into account the specificities of each context.
  • Improve the quality of justice journeys. Empower people to understand, use and shape the law, while offering them fair informal and formal justice processes that meet their needs in terms of both procedures and outcomes.
  • Use justice for prevention.Make use of mediation and other methods to prevent disputes from escalating; address legacies of human rights violations; and invest in justice systems that are trustworthy and legitimate.
  • Provide people with means to access services and opportunities. Break down the legal, administrative, and practical barriers that people face to obtain documents, access public services, and participate fully in society and the economy, while promoting gender equality.

As someone who was in the room I can tell you that justice leadership in Argentina, The Netherlands, Niger and Timor l’Este has much more in common than one would think. New plans and practices are emerging. One of them: to have more meetings at the leadership level to talk about the best ways to implement these priorities. The Justice Leadership Group committed helping them do this. The Elders also unveiled a plan: their access to justice programme. This brings the voices of 11 global leaders to the table – leaders that have access to the highest levels of governments.

The Hague meetings also provided clarity about the size of the problem. The final report of the Task Force on Justice is still due. In the meantime, the World Justice Project, which led a working group on the justice gap, published a Working Paper that significantly deepens the understanding of where the main needs lie. An estimated 5 billion people in the word have unmet justice needs. There are 244 million people who experience extreme conditions of injustice. They live in countries where it is unsafe and rule of law is largely absent. Second: 1.5 billion people have unmet legal needs. They can’t get a solution If they have a legal problem connected with housing, employment, family, and other issues connected with daily life. This affects the most vulnerable groups most. The third group is the largest: 4.4 billion people who lack legal identity or other documentation related to employment, family or property and the like. Because of it, they don’t get the protection of the law. In December, HiiL published a report that has data about the consequences of not having access to justice are. Violence, personal injury, loss of income, stress, damaged relationships, and an incredible amount of loss of time. Work is being done to get more data about on the financing of justice. A first estimation shared by Marcus Manuel of the Overseas Development Institute in a panel at the Innovating Justice Forum is that it would cost $20 per person to provide basic justice care in low income countries. That is less than universal health care, which the WHO estimates costs around $34 per person. An estimated 2 billion people live in countries that can’t afford half the costs of universal basic justice care. Innovation and creativity is needed, because the share of aid going to justice has fallen with 40% in the last five years.

The Innovation Working Group of the Task Force on Justice also launched a report (disclosure: I am one of its members). It concludes that innovation in the justice sector is both badly needed and possible. The Working Group proposes new mental models for the justice sector that are very much in sync with the Hague Declaration: make justice delivery efforts more people-centered and outcome-based. It sets out a number of promising innovation directions, with a list of examples from all over the word. It looks at the system changes that are needed to reach scale, the most important of which is the need to level the playing field for justice innovations. Regulatory frameworks must open up so that they can get access to clients, money, and partnerships.

It was not all reports and declarations. Twelve justice innovations from ten different countries battled the 2019 Innovating Justice Awards. First prize went to CrimeSync from Sierra Leone. Their web and mobile application allows ministries of justice, judiciaries, prosecutions services, police and prison services to organise, collaborate and share information. Runner up was Haqdarshak from India, which supports citizens discover, apply for and benefit from welfare schemes. South African innovator Creative Contracts came third with visual contracts that are easy to understand for everyone. The jury concluded that all these justice innovations be scaled across many countries.

A raft of more international meetings is foreseen around SDG 16.3 The OECD, the World Justice Forum, and the Open Government Platform. In July, progress in meeting SDG16 will be assessed and the UN High Level Political Forum. In September, the Heads of State and government will do the same.

These are many committed groups. Together, they make up a committed global movement. The question now is not what should be done. It’s not doing what’s in front of us.

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