Am I Essential?

The Covid-crisis lays bare things that were always there but not that visible. Inequality. Vulnerability. The amount we travel. How marketized our societies have become. What it also shows is how the justice sector in most countries is caught up in itself. Four structural vulnerabilities are laid bare.

Firstly, the self-image. When the presidents or prime ministers of the world declared lockdowns – except for ‘essential services’ – courts generally closed. That conveyed a self-image of not being an essential service. Most citizens (and some judges) see that differently. If you are a doctor with a demented patient that urgently needs to be put into care, the justice system is an essential service. If you are in the middle of a complex divorce, a labour conflict, a neighbour dispute, or an insolvency situation, the justice system is an essential service. If you are waiting for a ruling whether you should go to jail or not, the justice system is an essential service. Those that work in the health and education sectors fought lockdowns. They looked for ways to stay open and connected with their users. So did supermarkets. These sectors had alternative systems up and running within days.

Four weeks into the lockdowns, I observe that justice leaders are proudly starting to tweet that delivery is starting again, slowly. This does however not seem to be happening as a result of well-coordinated and directed government action, but because some people in some institutions have taken the initiative. That lays bare a second justice system trait: how difficult it is for them to respond to needs and innovate. Innovation, if it happens, is dependent on the few. It is implemented as pilots, which sometimes work and sometimes peter out. There is inherent resistance to change. Methods, skills, and systems to innovate and adapt fast are lacking. How many countries do we know where the ministry of justice had an inter-agency task force up and running to get all essential justice services to citizens re-started within a week? With focussed leadership, focussed funding, and citizens needs and experiences at the centre? The UAE looks like an example: people can now marry and organise wills online. Singapore was already a long way in digitalization, so it had a good platform to build on. That raises an even deeper question: leaving the Covid crisis aside: in 2020, why are so many courts and justice services in the world still so dependent on physical presence?

This may be connected to a third thing that is glaringly obvious: most justice systems in the world don’t really seem to know what citizens need and experience. With that I mean deeply and accurately know. On 8 April a report was published on changing justice needs as a result of the Covid-19 crisis: Justice in a Pandemic. As one of the lead authors I experienced directly how hard it is to find good data about changing needs. We worked with anecdotal evidence and borrowed from the work of good journalists. In the health sector that is very different. Having such data is a critical enabler for responding well to such a crisis. Lisa More recently shared progress on these pages: the development of a civil justice indicator, led by the World Justice Project.

Lastly, we see limited transnational and cross-sectoral collaboration in the justice sector. That however, is also a key ingredient to get out of a crisis like this, especially at the leadership level. Sharing best practices. Sharing learnings. Supporting each other. Working together to pool resources, political capital, and funding. Justice systems have a tendency to rabbit-hole and focus a lot on their own specificity. “At our court the criminal sector has been able to make adjustments. Our colleagues in the civil sector are a lot less far.”, I heard someone say. If cross sector collaboration is already hard within one court, how far are we from the level of transnational collaboration needed for this crisis? An interesting example of where this is starting to happen is Remote Courts Worldwide, on which experiences in remote hearings are shared.

It seems that while citizens in many parts of the world are being deprived of an essential services, many justice systems are still very much caught up in themselves. Their own rules, systems, institutions. Not sufficiently connected with people. That must change, now more than ever. It’s starting to happen.’ Let’s use this crisis to speed this up.


  1. While I agree with the observations of limited speeds on innovation in the justice sector, the comparison with the health and education sector has not addressed two significant differences:

    1) Education, at the interacting with student level, appears much less complex than the user interface in the justice level, where existing rules and law are complex and hence interaction is less readily adaptable. The health sector innovation during Covid-19 appears very much limited to telemedicine, as much brick-mortar hospital services remain shut; and

    2) The funding for health and education is far greater than that for justice, and one has to query how much of the capacity to respond is impaired by differences in levels of funding.

    While we all trust that the justice sector will be able to retool to punch above its funding for the road ahead, we need to see realistically where it is during the crisis in order to effectively guide its future.

  2. Hi Kevin, You add important nuances. You are right in what you say. What I also see, is that the legal sector likes to express why it is so very different. Dealing with all connections and complexities around something like cancer treatment and care for children, involving oncologists, GPs, social workers, phycho-social care, schools, etc.. is also complex? And yet we keep getting better and better at that, fast. In a report that will be published by HiiL shortly we also see that one of the reasons for less funding for the justice sector is also because it has been less good at innovating and producing clearly effective outcomes at scale.

  3. Abiola Makinwa

    Very good points Sam. Covid as an accelerated innovation lab! ‘Adapt or die’ has suddenly become very real. Adapters understand that opening pandoras box means that no matter what happens with Covid, some things are changed for good. The ‘die’ group wait for this all to be over so things can resume where they stopped’ before lockdown. Unfortunately resistance to change is also a very real thing, especially in conservative professions. Am I essential? This will very much depend on the degree to which I can see my Covid induced circumstances as an opportunity for creative steps in education delivery, access to justice, compliance, social welfare, environment management etc etc etc. Great article. Thanks!