Justice Is Missing the Boat

The year 2020 will go down in history as the year when much changed. One thing seems to remain constant: the fact that the justice sector is slow to change. As a consequence, it seems to be missing a rather big boat.

Good things often come out of bad things. It is no different with the current crises we face. In its 5 December issue, The Economist carries an article that sets out how the pandemic is leading to unprecedented innovation and investment in the health sector. It sees the dawn of “the next trillion-dollar industry”. Patients are demanding and flocking towards it. The medical profession is starting to develop and offer it. Regulators around the world are supporting it. Investors are investing in it with a reported record $8.4 billion of equity funding flowing to digital health companies in the 3rd quarter of 2020 alone. Some of the key features of this innovation wave are: health moving online; health coming to your home; patients being empowered to prevent and cure; and an even more ferocious data driven focus on health outcomes. This not just happening in the Europe and the US. China, India, and others are part of this wave as well. The article made me think: what do we see in the justice sector?

In my previous column, I shared the outcomes of a meeting of 22 ministers of justice held in October, hosted by Canada. It was held because the ministers concluded that the “COVID-19 pandemic, its economic impacts, and the damage it is causing to individuals, communities and societies are the biggest global challenges that the world’s justice systems have ever faced.” (emphasis added) The crisis, they said, was an opportunity and they committed to investing in justice and increasing evidence-based solutions. The meeting was significant in that it brought ministers together to share analysis and action. However, read against the backdrop of the Economist article, more is possible.

In a recent article, the consultancy firm McKinsey set out what the investor hotspots are for the US health market. It gives an interesting insight into the kind of thinking that fuels innovation and investment at scale in a more innovation-driven marketplace. Five core areas for innovation and investment emerge from careful analysis: “R&D, wellness and disease prevention, screening and diagnosis, care delivery, and finance and operations.” From this the authors identify 9 “value pools” in which innovation is happening, which are apparently attractive for investors. They show that these areas are both impactful and investable.

Where is the equivalent list from the justice sector?

The main shapers of the justice sector marketplace – ministries of justice, justice committees of parliaments, judiciaries, and bar associations – don’t really seem to be working on this. Yes, we have legal tech. According HiiL’s 2020 Charging for Justice report, investments in legal tech exceeded $1 billion for the first time in 2019 (compare that to the $8.4 billion in Q3 of 2020 referred to above!). However, most of that went to services that help major law firms and big companies, and others who already have access to the law. In the meantime, we are living in a world where, before COVID-19, only around one third of people who had a justice problem found resolution.

Let’s make it easy: what if the justice sector were to focus on aligning incentives and interests to focus on more or less the same areas as health, highlighted by McKinsey? Investing in R&D that gathers the best data about the justice needs and experiences of people and on treatments that work, both for prevention and resolution. Developing tools to know who needs which treatment when. Focusing on the most innovative ways to deliver the best treatments for prevention and resolution to those that need it. And lastly, ensuring that this is optimally operationalised and financially efficient. What can the shapers of the justice sector do to make it more attractive to invest in these areas – as government, (impact) investor, or philanthropist, or a combination of these?

Yes, the health sector cannot be fully compared with the justice sector. But the approach the former is taking does point to the direction the justice sector needs to take. Justice is missing a huge innovation and investment boat because its marketplace is not working well enough. I repeat: we are living in a world where, before COVID-19, only around one third of people who had a justice problem found resolution. Effective justice delivery is essential for dealing with the pandemic, for economic recovery, for social cohesion, and to avoid political upheaval. The recently released 2020 Human Development Report refers to a study among 49 countries that shows that most moves towards universal health coverage happened as a result of disruptions of the status quo and episodes of social instability. We cannot allow the huge opportunity of this huge crisis to go to waste.


  1. Hello Sam – yes you are correct – the justice sector is way behind – on many levels and on many fronts, to the detriment of individuals young and old, and to the detriment of society – witness the failure to regulate social media (eg. Q Anon) and its impact upon democratic systems of governance.
    There is much R&D needed but there is already a huge global movement in the direction of ADR/restorative justice – for example. There is much change in processes – not every legal issue needs a courtroom or an adversarial process. Arbitrations, mediations, facilitated circles each contribute towards solutions. However, a failure of imagination and implementation through the legislative process still leaves more than a significant % of the population out. Injustice towards normal adolescents in conflict, elder abuse are but two major legal failures even though there are presently solutions to each, they just need implementation. Finally, how will the legal system address global greed and corruption which undermines all efforts to move forward. This concern includes the total failure to manage or regulate social media and we see the disastrous consequences of this one regulatory failure.

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