Building a Business Case for Investing in Community-Based Justice

There are examples all over the world of community-based efforts that facilitate dispute resolution. Community-based justice initiatives are local mechanisms that act in official and quasi-official ways to provide information, advice and services to people within communities who experience justiciable problems. Their scope, who they serve, how they connect with people within communities, where they work and how they provide assistance may vary based on a number of factors, including their location, staffing and other resources. The similarity of community-oriented justice services lies in their efforts to provide assistance to resolve legal problems, often in the face of geographical and financial barriers. They operate against the backdrop of various historical, political, social, cultural and economic contexts, and in the absence of faith in formal justice institutions, to address gaps in legal service delivery in underserved communities, often at little or no cost to people seeking redress for civil, family and criminal problems. With the staggering number of people worldwide who have inadequate access to justice,[1] community-based justice initiatives can teach us a lot about how to make justice more accessible.

While the array of community-based justice initiatives that exist are not without their limitations, they are an important resource in the continuum of dispute resolution options that serve to build legal awareness, foster legal empowerment and facilitate access to justice. Despite their presence in low, middle and high income countries alike, and the important work that they do as conduits for problem resolution, globally, the evidence to understand, assess, invest in and scale access to community-based justice remains sparse. To act effectively to respond to unmet justice needs requires an evidence-based understanding of what works in the delivery of legal services, how it works and how to adapt, adopt, and apply what works to benefit more people. Community-based access to justice initiatives are an important part of this conversation. With support from the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) has embarked on a three-year, multi-country project to examine the costs, benefits, challenges and opportunities of providing and scaling access to community-based justice services in Canada, Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa.

Community-Based Justice Research Project

The Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) project (2018-2020) is a recently-launched, international research initiative that aims to produce new insights on the costs and impact of various community-based justice models. What do successful community-based justice initiatives look like? What features make for a successful initiative? What challenges are getting in the way of successful models? How is success measured? What can we learn from these models that can be scaled up or transferred to other jurisdictions? We will be asking these and other questions, with the goal of engendering evidence-based policy thinking and reform to support improving and scaling basic legal services to help ensure equal access to justice for all.[2]

The IDRC’s “Understanding the Costs and Benefits of Community-Based Justice Services” project (2018-2020) with the Katiba Institute in Kenya, the Center for Alternative Policy Research and Innovation (CAPRI) in Sierra Leone and the Centre for Community Justice and Development (CCJD) in South Africa, with support from Open Society Foundations (OSF), will evaluate the direct and indirect outcomes of community-based justice services measured against the cost of respective interventions. By extension, the CFCJ’s Community-Based Justice Research project will support, catalyze and synthesize this collection of research studies and conduct further, related research to assess and compare the costs, opportunities and challenges for delivering community-based justice services in Canada, Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa.

Kenya, Sierra Leone and South Africa present interesting case studies for community-based justice initiatives. The three countries offer a diversity of political, legal, historical, economic and cultural frameworks that have influenced the development and growth of community-oriented justice services in different ways. There are also many examples of community-based justice programs operating across Canada that offer compelling models for study.[3] A common thread among these regions is the emergence of community-based justice programs as important tools for facilitating dispute resolution within the respective legal frameworks. With consideration given to various social, gender-based, and cultural dimensions, the methodologies for the in-country studies will include mapping exercises, gathering of secondary data, focus groups, community-based justice user surveys, case tracking, structured and semi-structured interviews, and appraisals of justice services by purveyors of legal information and community-based legal services. The focus will be on the resolution of family and civil justice problems.

Collaborative, evidence-based research initiatives like the CBJR project are necessary to develop the sorts of indicators that can support national and international improvements in access to justice. Additionally, the project’s design, which revolves around a network of researchers working simultaneously towards similar objectives, promotes knowledge exchange on best practices, research tools, benchmarking and other themes that can enhance the uniformity and quality of the indicators that this research yields. Understanding the cost, access and other aspects of programs that work in the delivery of legal services are what allow for them to be improved, scaled and applied elsewhere.

The seriousness of the global access to justice crisis has not gone unnoticed and the international community has responded with calls and plans for action to increase access to justice.[4] By advancing a collective understanding of the costs, benefits, challenges and opportunities of locally accessible justice initiatives, this research project will help to create a stronger evidence base for investing in access to community-based justice and improving access to justice.

By Lisa Moore
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice


[1] An estimated 4 billion people around the world live outside the protection of the law. See: United Nations Commission on Legal Empowerment for the Poor, “Making the Law Work for Everyone” (2008) at. 1, online: United Nations <>.

[2] UN SDG 16.3 calls for countries to ensure equal access to justice for all their citizens by 2030. See United Nations, “Sustainable Development Goals”, online: United Nations <>.

[3] See e.g. Ab Currie, “Engaging the Power of Community to Expand Legal Services for Low-Income Ontarians” (April 2017), online: <>; Ab Currie, “Legal Secondary Consultation: How Legal Aid Can Support Communities and Expand Access to Justice” (March 2018), online: <> ; Law Foundation of Ontario Connecting Communities program, online: <>.

[4] See e.g. Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development & Open Society Foundations, “Leveraging the SDGs for Inclusive Growth: Delivering Access to Justice for All” (2016), online:>.


  1. Bravo. Community based justice has a human history long record of utility. Circles of healing within Canada’s indigenous communities are a case in point. Similarly, last summer, PBS carried a wonderful documentary of such a program in either California or New Mexico. The judge wore street clothes and sat at the same table as the accused. At one point, she (the judge) even patted the accused on the shoulder. It was all phenomenally civilized and calculated to enhance rehabilitation over retribution.