An Emerging Ministers of Justice Movement

Since April, we have been calling for justice leaders of the world to get out of their national cubby holes and come together to share fears, failures, successes, and strategies, just like public health minister are doing. The COVID-19 crisis is too big and too unprecedented to deal with on your own national level. On 20 October, 22 ministers of justice did just that at the Justice for All in a Global Emergency meeting convened by Minister of Justice of Canada, David Lametti (see end for participants). It was a significant moment. For 90 minutes, they shared their experiences in dealing with the COVID-19 crisis. This is what I took away from it…

First veterans

The Chair of the meeting, Deputy Minister Drouin from Canada and one of the participants, Minister Marou Amadou from Niger, were amongst the group of pioneer ministers that adopted the Hague Declaration on Access to Justice in February 2019. The meeting was moderated by Allyson Maynard-Gibson, a member of the Task Force on Justice, and co-organized by the Pathfinders for Justice and the OECD. The Open Government Partnership, also at the Hague meeting in February 2019, took a lead role as co-organiser. So, we are starting to see the first ‘veterans’ – people and institutions who were part of the first small victories and who are coming back for more. That is an important moment for a movement that seeks to change a paradigm. Momentum is growing. Shared wisdom is growing. The stories are growing. Relationships are growing. I remember that the movement to set up the International Criminal Court really started getting momentum when a growing and increasingly tight group of veterans from past meetings developed. It became an unstoppable force.

Institutions count

People-centred justice is justice that is built around people, not institutions. The Task Force on Justice gave itself three goals: to resolve people’s justice problems, prevent injustices large and small from occurring, and create opportunities for people to participate fully in their societies and economies. The meeting showed that it is not easy for ministers of justice to let go of their institutions entirely. They owe them allegiance. Putting it even more bluntly: they are paid to defend them. So, understandably, a lot of what was said was about institutions, not ‘the people’. They shared how they worked hard to ensure that the justice workers for which the ministry is responsible are safe. How they adapted terms of office. The worries about budgets. None of them spoke of a serious redesign of existing procedures and institutions to make them more people-centred. Most of them were working hard to allow the existing procedures to continue to function. Those very procedures of which the Task Force on Justice concluded were not delivering enough. Some, like the ministers of Ireland, Latvia, North Macedonia, Portugal, Niger, and Sierra Leone alluded to a desire for deeper innovation, but they did not share deeper experiences of actually doing that. It tells me that while we must never stop the talk of people-centred, a considerable part of the effort must also be directed at institutions: helping them to change.

Data gives it a face

Ministries of justice generally have data on one large group of people they serve: prisoners. So almost all ministers shared experiences about what they were doing to avoid large COVID-19 outbreaks in their prisons. The prisoners had a face because of the data. This shows how important it to gather more data about the needs and experiences of other people as well. Justice misery needs a face. Only data can do that. We must increase the data foundation.

Six innovation directions

The conversation pointed to six promising innovation directions that already seem to have some traction.

Firstly, COVID-19 appears to be showing how little society gains from locking many people up, what limited harm ensues when you let many of them go, and the huge value of community policing. This is a movement towards more people-centred criminal justice. There appears to be a need, some things seem to be working, and some of that can be scaled.

Secondly, many ministers – especially the ones that impressed most when it came to innovation efforts – spoke of a ‘whole-of-government’ or ‘cross sectoral’ approach when they had success. Working together with other ministries, other institutions, and civil society organisations. New ways of leading, organising, budgeting, and managing are emerging. This more holistic way of working seems to be something that is being tried, that is working, and that can be developed and scaled as well.

Thirdly, all ministers shared experiences about moving more justice support and delivery online. It’s fairly modest (and, as mentioned, based largely on existing processes) but still significant: digital signatures, online applications, online hearings, mobile paying of fines, online mediation, electronic case files, online registration, 24/7 helplines, and more. The minister of justice from Belgium proposed a ‘giant leap’ – to build a single, digital platform for citizens with which they can interact with the whole justice system. Latvia already seems to have that. Something is clearly shifting. A mindset. This must be seized upon.

Fourthly, and connected with the previous point, the beginning of this digital wave points to tremendous opportunities for the private sector to help the public sector to make these digital solutions scale, much like the way innovation and scale is achieved in the health sector. If the ‘market’ is ready, how can this collaboration be developed?

For the fifth direction, we heard a lot about ‘simplifying procedures’. This is now being done because complex procedures are even more difficult to put online. This energy of annoyance towards complex procedures should be nurtured. The capacity and drive to simplify them should be strengthened and not be allowed to peter out once there is a COVID-19 vaccine.

Sixth and finally, some impressions were shared around innovations concerning legal aid. Decentralising it, involving more civil society organisations, and expanding it. This also appears to be something many are working on or struggling with. Another area in which to continue to share and develop best practices.

We need a transition period

Most predictions assume vaccinations will be available in the second quarter of 2021. Will that be the start of normalcy? That is unlikely, said the minister of justice of Chile. All justice systems will be facing huge backlogs on many fronts before they can get back to normal. Just like public health systems. There is an urgent need to think about the design of a transition period to get things back to normal, just like they did when they set up the Fire Court after the Great Fire of London in 1666. What if justice ministries of the world started working out together how to do this?

You need a foundation

What I also heard: very few ministries of justice had a foundation to build on. Most ministries of justice were caught entirely by surprise when the crisis erupted. They were totally not ready for a paperless, user-friendly, online world and had not even started moving in that direction. That is something we, the justice sector, should be seriously ashamed of. It is a position we must never be in again and should be the rock hard resolve from which we take next steps.

Building back better

This is a UN concept that comes from the world of disaster recovery. That’s the world we are in now: a global disaster. Minister Drouin concluded in the Chair’s statement: “… we have recognised the importance of justice leaders working together globally and regionally… Our discussions revealed that countries from different regions and income groups face many common challenges. Sharing best practices with each other will allow us to advance more innovative solutions.” I propose we make that concrete.

Firstly, let us take the six innovation directions that were shared and the question of the transition period as the point of departure for an international people-centred justice agenda.

Second, let us must plan more meetings, with more ministers of justice from more regions. It would be good to initially make such meetings more granular, in terms of regions, groups of countries and topic. There is a huge variety of regional and sub-regional organisations in the world that could help convene these meetings. We now have a core group of veterans that could help coordinate this.

Thirdly: those smaller, (in)formal regional gatherings would work on shareable best practices for each of the six innovation directions, adding ways in which they can be implemented (institutions) and funded (nationally, internationally, public and private).

Finally, and circling back to the first point, these regional best practices form the foundation for the next global meeting which can be planned in about a year from now, into which the ideas that came from the regional gatherings would be fed and a global coalition can work on ways to scale the best of them.

(The following ministers were present at the meeting mentioned above: Albania – Etilda Gjonaj; Argentina – Miriam Losardo; Armenia – Kristine Grigoryan; Belgium – Vincent van Quickenborne; Canada – Nathalie Drouin; Chile – Herman Fernandez; Costa Rica – Viviana Cachon; Czech Republic – Jan Kohout; Ireland – Helen McEntee; Italy – Vitorio Ferraresi; Kazakhstan – Marat Beketayev; Latvia – Janis Bordans; Lebanon – Marie Claude Najim; Morocco – Mohamed Ben Abdelkader; Niger – Marou Amadou; North Macedonia – Bojan Maricik; Paraguay – Cecilia Perez Rivaz; Peru – Ana Christina Neyra Zegarra; Portugal – Anabela Pedroso; Senegal – Mamadou Saliou Sow; Sierra Leone – Anthony Brewah; Slovak Republic – Michael Novotny).


  1. I recall the Canadian federal/provincial/territorial justice ministers in the early 1990s proposing an ‘integrated justice’ project, to deal with the impacts that the
    education system and mental health systems had on justice – notably that
    the failures of these other systems ended up occuping the resources of
    the justice ministers (including corrections). Not much came of it,
    though, in my view for two main reasons:

    a. The ministers of those other departments were more important in their
    governments and had more money and broader responsibilities and had no
    duty or instructions to care about downstream impact on justice. Civil
    justice is almost never a high priority for governments (I say having
    laboured in that field for over 30 years in Ontario), and criminal only
    when it makes headlines.

    b. While one *knows* that improving education and mental health will
    help the justice system,

    (i) one cannot prove it to a mathematical certainty, and more important,

    (ii) the impact will be felt years in the future, when the responsible ministers will be safely retired somewhere and somebody else will be trying to solve the problems of government.

    Of course the Covid-inspired crisis may shorten some of the timelines and some of the lines of responsibility, to give an opportunity for progress now. I wish them all luck.

  2. Dear John, Wise words! The making of the ‘business case’ for justice is hard. Indeed, other ministers at the cabinet table often win. A jet fighter for the airforce to protect the country of more access to justice, what’s a better thing to do? The jetfighter always wins hands down. I have tried to bring some MoJ’s together to develop the business case. The fundamentals can’t be that different between Canada, The Netherlands, or South Africa. Had a few interesting conversations about it. But needs more time from me. Maybe we can get some people together for this?