It’ll Take Time but It’s Happening

I have looked into the history of data-driven and evidence based working in the health sector because I am curious about what we can learn from that for the justice sector. I can’t claim to have researched it all, but a few things stand out thus far.

First and foremost: without the shift to data-driven and evidence based working the huge increase in good healthcare for everyone would not have happened. Secondly: it took time to get there. If we discount early experimentation by Hippocrates, it took around 150 years for the health sector to embrace this way of working. Thirdly, in-your-face-urgency helps. Most of the early work focused on large scale killers like cholera, tuberculosis, diphtheria, and scurvy, the leading cause of death for sailors. The fourth lesson is the need to show success. The movement started with a few first, dispersed, local experiments, like, for example, the work of ship surgeon James Lind in 1750. By testing treatments on sailors he found that vitamin C (lemons and oranges) cured scurvy and that vinegar, cider, nutmeg and sea water did not. He showed working in this way helped deliver solutions (bring lemon juice when you sail) that saved lives and money.

What also seems relevant is that, around that same time that dispersed experiments were starting, other, broader, paradigm-changing knowledge was being gained: Louis Pasteur and others discovered bacteria, viruses and vaccines. Suddenly it became clear what was causing what and how, at a scale never seen before. That opened huge horizons. So many bacteria, viruses and vaccines to be discovered, so many people that could be saved, and so much glory to be gained. Bring on the data! Coupled with that came the emergence of technological enablers. You could conclude with empirical studies that a smelly, waste infested Thames was not good for health. But you could also point to something doable that could help solve it: sewer systems. Had Pasteur and others discovered their bacteria and viruses in the year 1130, it is unlikely that much could have been done with it.

Lastly, I conclude that smart governance systems with which to share information, set standards, and channel funding, were relevant. In the US and Britain cities started setting up health authorities. Then states, provinces and national systems took over. These health authorities set standards on the basis of which rules could be made and money allocated. Slowly, a web of health authorities emerged. In the early 20th century that even went global, with the setting up of the predecessor of the WHO (which was set up in 1945).

What can this tell us about the justice sector now? A few careful conclusions:

Firstly, the justice sector lags far behind other sectors when it comes to using data and evidence based working. In line with that, it also lags far behind other sectors like health and education in terms of global access to good solutions. Secondly, showing urgency is hard. The justice sector is not driven by massive losses and disasters like the big epidemics of the 20th century. Lack of access to justice damages and kills in small batches, over time. So no one really notices.[1] This can change. We don’t fully know yet how much of human misery is linked to lack of access to justice. In the Sahel (Niger and Mali) and in many Arab countries I hear from credible people that the lack of a functioning justice system lies at the heart of much of the poverty, insecurity, and death. I have heard Mary Robinson of The Elders repeatedly say that a functioning justice system forms the foundation for all the SDG’s. Intuitively I fully agree with them. But I also have a sense that that this question has not been fully understood. We don’t really know. Not like Pasteur and others knew that bacteria and viruses where causing deadly epidemics. Getting there needs investment and effort.

I do see an increasing amount of dispersed, local data collection efforts that are starting to show things. But it is not overwhelming. This is an interesting one I recently came across: a longitudinal study that looks at violence by men against their partners. It concludes that men with certain psychiatric disorders and who are addicted to drugs and alcohol are much, much more likely to beat their partners. That means that policemen, courts and long sentences are only a partial solution for this problem. It’s more effective to look further downstream and develop knowledge about psychiatric disorders and addiction. The justice system has to be linked to the health system.

But (and this is a big but): we don’t really have the equivalent of easy (technological) solutions yet, like the sewer systems. What can you do when you know that certain psychiatric disorders and a susceptibility to addiction in men causes a huge probability of violence against partners? Warn partners before they start a relationship? Monitor the men? Give them compulsory pills? Build an app? Having the data and evidence is – at least for now – only partially useful. So investment in solutions that can scale is necessary.

Finally, we also don’t really have a governance system and action-infrastructure to pick up on the results of studies like these. Will minister of justice Sander Dekker of The Netherlands and the association of family lawyers in Canada read it? Will it find its way to Mexico, the Philippines, and Kenya? Can innovators find this knowledge and in some kind of setting – be it academic or more practice oriented – start efforts to develop the sewer-system kind of solution? Can funding be channeled to such an effort? Such an infrastructure is still largely lacking.

If history is anything to go by, we still have quite a way to go to make the justice sector embrace data driven and evidenced based working. It would be a worthy goal to try to reduce the 150 years to 50. If we embrace that ambition, the year 2019 was good year. Within the context of the Task Force on Justice a serious estimation of size of the global justice gap was produced.[2] A global partnership of national and international organisations is emerging it’s a loose one, but it is producing results. The Task Force on Justice also formulated a new vision for justice; data driven and evidence based working is one of the pillars. That vision also includes opening justice systems up to innovation. A political document has been adopted that affirms this new paradigm: the Hague Declaration on Access to Justice.

So one could say: it’s slowly starting to happen. We need to double our efforts on all fronts to ensure the movement accelerates. Learn more about how access to justice is related to happiness, health, development, and safety. Do more research into justice needs and experiences and what works. Innovate game changing solutions. Share data and good practices. And lastly: come together as a sector. Fifty years fly by.


[1] Yes, we have the periodic mass misery resulting from war crimes and genocides. But generally they are seen as “unimaginable atrocities that deeply shock the conscience of humanity” for which individual responsibility must be organized (the preamble of the Rome Statute for the ICC); they are not well understood.

[2] See page 28 and further of the report of the Task Force on Justice: 250.000 people who live in extreme conditions of injustice, deprived of any meaningful legal protections; 1.5 billion people have justice problems they cannot solve; 4.5 billion people are excluded from the social, economic, and political opportunities the law provides. In total, more than 5 billion people are deprived of justice.


  1. “Having the data and evidence is – at least for now – only partially useful.” This is true. A number of questions come to mind, such as: What is to be done with data once collected? How will the data be collected? Who will be responsible for collecting the data?

    One lesson to be learned from the sewer system analogy is that the solution didn’t come from one sector or group. There were contributions made from many professions – scientists involved in discovering bacteria as the cause of diseases and epidemics; health care workers; engineers depending on the work of historians and archaeologists (after all the Romans had sewer systems dating as far back as 500 BC ); and politicians. Sewers weren’t a new invention but were adapted to solve present day problems. Though sewage systems may have been adequate and depending on the system – cost-effective for the time – those systems and infrastructures are in need of further update to accommodate present day demands on the system and environmental damage their inadequacies are causing. Again such solutions will depend on various groups and professions coming together to solve a societal problem. And so too will justice reform require collaboration of the justice system with other groups, and systems. The justice system must be recognized as being a part of the larger societal picture; not a silo isolated from the other parts of the whole. Hence justice solutions require participation from the whole societal body.

  2. Hi Verna, Sorry to respond so late! “The justice system must be recognized as being a part of the larger societal picture; not a silo isolated from the other parts of the whole. Hence justice solutions require participation from the whole societal body.” This is so true! We need to think and work differently as lawyers to embrace that.