Measuring Progress on Access to Justice Within Sustainable Development Goal SDG 16.3

In 2015 world leaders, acting through the United Nations, agreed to adopt 17 global objectives known as the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The overarching objective was, and remains, to make measurable progress toward creating a better world by the year 2030 by reducing poverty, fighting inequality and by addressing the emergency of climate change. Among the Sustainable Development Goals is SDG 16, focusing on peace, justice and strong institutions. SDG 16 seeks to promote “a peaceful and inclusive society for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and to build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” SDG 16 has 12 target objectives. Of particular interest is target 16.3 which seeks to promote the rule of law and access to justice.

The UN Sustainable Development Goal initiative has drawn a number of powerful and well-funded international organizations into the access to justice movement. In the past several years the World Bank, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the New York-based Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime and the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) are among the major organizations that have developed global access to justice initiatives, focused on SDG 16. A recent report by Peter Chapman, written for the Pathfinders organization, emphasizes the need for good justice data to make progress toward equal justice for all. Survey data is one of several important sources of justice data referenced in the report.

Along with international organizations, national governments have become more active in the access to justice movement. Notably, the Department of Justice Canada and the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) at Foreign Affairs Canada have played prominent roles in collaborating with the OECD and other international organizations developing approaches to people-centered access to justice.

Measuring progress toward greater access to justice is an important part of SDG 16. However, developing a few simple indicators that represent the complexity of greater access to justice is no easy task. At the outset, only criminal justice indicators had been adopted. These are 16.3.1, the number of victims of crime in the previous 12-month period and 16.3.2, the number of unsentenced detainees as a percentage of the prison population. More recently a civil justice indicator 16.3.3, “the proportion of the population who have experienced a dispute in the past two years and who accessed a formal or informal dispute resolution mechanism, by type of mechanism” was adopted in March 2020. Measuring progress on access to civil justice is particularly salient for Canada. Readers of this journal may recall several articles reporting on the results of the World Justice Project Rule of Law Index in which access to civil justice has consistently been the lowest among rule of law measures for Canada.

Measuring progress on SDG 16.3.3 depends on a data source for legal problems experienced by Canadians. The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) study of Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada conducted in 2013-2014 provides the most recent national legal problems data and measure of SDG 16.3.3. Measuring progress requires current, up-to-date data collected at reasonably frequent intervals using a consistent methodology and data collection approach. The CFCJ study reported that within a three-year period 48.4% of adult Canadians reported having experienced one or more everyday legal problems that they considered serious and difficult to resolve. This data is now several years old. However, the results are consistent with three previous national legal problems studies carried out by the federal Department of Justice in 2004, 2006 and 2008, all of which reported that approximately half of adult Canadians experienced one or more civil justice problems within a similar three-year period. More recent studies using the same methodology and the same approach to data collection may yield similar results. There are other Canadian data that are very useful for tracking the need for legal services. The Legal Services Society of British Columbia conducts legal problems surveys at five-year intervals. The sample represents people meeting legal aid eligibility levels in British Columbia. The results of the 2020 survey reveal that 83% of British Columbians falling within legal aid eligibility thresholds experience one or more problems within a three-year period, almost twice the national figure for the total adult population.

Developing the measure for SDG 16.3.3 will require further work to achieve some degree of consistency, not only over time within one country but across countries participating in the re-invigorated access to justice movement driven by the global SDG initiative. Canadian legal problems surveys have used a three-year reference period rather than the two years specified in the SDG 16.3.3 definition. The vast majority of people experiencing these justiciable problems, say they did something to resolve the problem, keeping in mind that these are problems with a legal aspect for which a legal approach to resolving them is possible although perhaps not the solution that makes the most sense in terms of cost-benefit. Only 5% of respondents in the CFCJ study said they took no action to resolve their problem.

The problems reported in self-reported legal problems surveys are mostly everyday problems that have legal aspects, identified by responses to problem scenarios carefully worded to include legal dimensions. However, respondents may not recognize the legal aspects of their problems during their experiences and may not use any part of the formal justice system to resolve them. As one might expect, people are likely to take ordinary measures to deal with everyday legal problems. Efforts taken by respondents to resolve problems included: 75% of respondents attempted to negotiate with the other party; 61% said they obtained advice from friends or relatives; 28% obtained advice from an organization such as a government agency or a labour union; 33% searched the internet for information and advice; and 19% obtained legal advice. Legal advice was obtained primarily from lawyers but also from law lines and other sources. Only 7% of respondents used the formal justice system to resolve the problem.[1] The SDG 16.3.3 measure focuses on whether access to justice has been achieved rather than on outcomes. This is sensible in order to have a basic indicator that is manageable.

However, where the data are available jurisdictions might be able to elaborate on SDG 16.3.3 for their own purposes. One basic measure is the percentage of people who are able to resolve problems. In the CFCJ study, slightly more than half of all respondents, 55%, said the problem had been resolved at the time of the interview, 30% said the problem remained unresolved and approximately 7% said they had abandoned efforts to resolve the problem. Whether people manage to resolve their problems; whether people believe that the outcomes for resolved problems were fair; and the extent to which people achieved what they had expected at the outset are good measures of whether justice has been achieved within the people-centered approach that predominates in access to justice. Global indicators have to be simple as is SDG 16.3.3., however, measures such as the percentage of people who have resolved their problem would be useful additions to indicators at other levels.

Ab Currie, Ph.D.
Senior Research Fellow
Canadian Forum on Civil Justice


[1] Respondents may have taken multiple actions to resolve problems so these percentages do not add to 100%.

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