Advancing People-Centered Justice: New Research on Community-Based Justice

Canadian Forum on Civil Justice
Author: Trevor C.W. Farrow, Ab Currie and Lisa Moore, CFCJ

Access to justice and research innovation were important topics at the recent World Justice Forum 2022 and the Annual Summit of Canada’s Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters. In this article, as part of a growing body of access to justice opportunities and initiatives, we discuss some exciting new developments in community-based justice research.

Global Access to Justice Crisis

The global lack of access to justice has reached a critical point. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated legal service barriers and contributed to an increase in most types of justice problems, legal research and scholarship confirmed a global justice gap – an estimated two-thirds of the world’s population (approximately 5.1 billion people) lack meaningful access to justice.[1] Research from the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) indicates that virtually every Canadian adult will experience a serious civil justice problem in their lifetime.[2] The recent Experiences of Serious Problems or Disputes in the Canadian Provinces report reveals that 18% of people living in Canada’s provinces, and 34% of adult Canadians, experienced a serious dispute or problem in the last three years.[3] The US-based Legal Services Corporation (LSC), in their 2022 Justice Gap report, indicates that a majority (74%) of low-income households had at least one civil legal problem within the past year and 92% of civil legal needs among low-income populations receive no or inadequate legal help.[4] In Sierra Leone, the 2017 OSIWA Sierra Leone Legal Needs Survey found that 50% of people experienced a civil justice problem within the last two years,[5] while in East Africa, an estimated 53% of people surveyed as part of the 2019 Global Insights on Access to Justice in Kenya study indicated that they experienced a legal problem in the last two years.[6]

The justice gap, the shared landscape of serious legal problem experiences and the broader crisis in access to justice have prompted calls for action, debate, dialogue and a range of justice initiatives around the world. Perhaps the most notable driver of action in recent years is the inclusion of access to justice in UN SDG 16, which calls on all nations to work toward the goal of equal access to justice by 2030.

While the diversity of historical, political, social, cultural and economic contexts across jurisdictions precludes a single strategy to address our complex justice problems and shared goals for equal access, growing efforts within the global justice community provide plenty of opportunities to collaborate, coordinate, exchange ideas and learn from each other as we explore various initiatives and opportunities within our own unique contexts to address universal access to justice challenges.

Community-Based Justice

One specific area of focus within these various initiatives and opportunities is community-based justice.[7] Community-based justice services typically involve local justice service organizations that operate in an official or quasi-official capacity to provide information, advice and services to people within a given area who experience a justice-related problem. Community justice organizations are viewed as trusted sources of help, often operating against a backdrop of a lack of faith in more formal justice institutions.[8] According to one recent Canadian report, community-based justice can be understood as “work that staff and volunteers undertake in not-for-profit, community-based organizations to help people with life-affecting problems with a legal element.” Other definitions include government and other agencies in this work. Common, defining elements of community-based justice initiatives are that they are typically embedded in a community, they often involve staff and volunteers from a community, they are typically designed by a community, and they provide justice-related services for a community.

Community-based justice initiatives are not designed to compete with or replace other state-based or formal justice services. However, given the nature and extent of everyday legal problems and the reported experiences of many people who struggle to access state-based or more formal services, community-based justice services are often able to identify and understand the needs of local community members and to provide tailored services, solutions and referrals for those needs. Further, community-based justice organizations are often in a position to provide not only information or services for one-off individual problems, but also to mobilize collective efforts to address systemic gaps and community needs. Overall, community-based justice services are part of an overall continuum of services that – together – can effectively address the specific justice needs of all people in society, specifically including the most vulnerable. Their focus on everyday problems and holistic problem resolution aligns with people-centered, expansive visions of access to justice.[9]

Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) Project

This is where the CBJR project comes in.[10] The CBJR project is a multi-country research initiative with partners in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Kenya and Canada. Since 2018, the CBJR project partners have been working to learn more about the access to justice benefits and costs of various community-based justice services.

The three African-based CBJR research initiatives were conducted by the Katiba Institute in Kenya, the Center for Alternative Policy Research and Innovation (CAPRI) in Sierra Leone, and the Centre for Community Justice & Development (CCJD) in South Africa. The research was mainly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).[11] IDRC also funded the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ), based at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University in Toronto, to facilitate links between the projects and to help connect them to the global access to justice conversation, specifically including community-based justice and the business case for investment. This overall collaborative initiative makes up the Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) project.[12]

Generally, the three studies focus primarily on paralegal delivery of community-based services. The ways in which paralegal services operate in each of the three CBJR studies illustrate important elements of community-based, people-centered justice, including problem resolution, relationship building, resource mobilization, and community well-being. Although there are similarities and common features and themes, the projects involve different perspectives, different approaches and different contexts, which all drive and shape their findings. Early findings were reported and discussed,[13] and the final reports from Sierra Leone, Kenya, and South Africa were recently released.

Cost-Benefit Analysis

A core objective of the CBJR project is to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of access to justice services with a view to understanding how local mechanisms facilitate problem-resolution in ways that are generally perceived to be accessible and fair. The three studies generally found community-based justice initiatives to be sustainable, viable and cost-effective. Importantly, the CBJR project also seeks to identify learnings across the collection of in-country studies that might offer guidance on scaling community-based justice services for broader national, regional and global impact.

Growing out of UN Sustainable Development Goal 16, the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies’ global justice agenda, and other global access to justice initiatives and efforts,[14] shared international goals include empowering people and communities and building a just, equitable, tolerant, open and inclusive world.[15] An important part of advancing this agenda is to make a business case based on cost-benefit analyses demonstrating the positive impacts of providing access to justice.[16]

Making better use of data to determine what works and what does not,[17] and conducting cost-benefit analyses to make the business case for access to justice[18] has been an important aspect of the people-centered justice movement. Making a business case for investing in access to justice is crucial if the case for expanding access to justice is to be made successfully.[19]

In this respect, the cost-benefit analyses carried out in the three CBJR studies contribute substantially to the literature on community-based cost-benefit analysis and to the broader access to justice agenda, making a strong case for paralegal community-based justice initiatives as cost-effective, viable and sustainable services.


The three CBJR studies involved large scale research undertakings, employing multiple methods for extensive data collection, and covering large areas of the countries involved. The various methodologies used by the three studies – with extensive and creatively-layered quantitative and qualitative approaches (including during the COVID-19 pandemic) – provide useful lessons and models for future community-based justice research projects. Taken together, these studies provide significant advances in cost-benefit methodologies, providing valuable methodological lessons in addition to their substantive access to justice results.


The three CBJR studies provide valuable new findings in the context of community-based justice initiatives, paralegal services, cost-benefit analyses and access to justice more generally. Notwithstanding the importance of local culture and context, there are widely-applicable lessons to be learned from these three exciting new African-based CBJR research studies, which will no doubt inspire new ways of thinking about measuring and achieving access to justice.


The CFCJ has been involved in various aspects of the CBJR project. In the project’s final stage, to be completed this year, the CFCJ will draw links between the three CBJR research studies in an effort to scale up some of the findings for the benefit of the global access to justice research and policy communities.

[1] Task Force on Justice, Justice for All – The Report of the Task Force on Justice (New York: Center on International Cooperation, 2019) at 18.

[2] Trevor CW Farrow, Ab Currie, Nicole Aylwin, Les Jacobs, David Northrup & Lisa Moore, Everyday Legal Problems and the Cost of Justice in Canada: Overview Report (Toronto: Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, 2016) at 2.

[3] Laura Savage & Susan McDonald, Experiences of Serious Problems or Disputes in the Canadian Provinces, 2021 (Ottawa: Statistics Canada, 18 January 2022) at 3.

[4]Mary C. Slosar, The Justice Gap: The Unmet Civil Legal Needs of Low-income Americans (Washington, DC: Legal Services Corporation, April 2022) at 8.

[5] Open Society Initiative for West African, Baseline and Needs Assessment for the Provision of Non-Criminal Primary Justice Services in Sierra Leone (Sierra Leone: OSIWA, 2017) at 14.

[6] World Justice Project, Global Insights on Access to Justice: Findings from the World Justice Project General Population Poll in 101 Countries (Washington, DC: World Justice Project, 2019) at 58. For legal needs research from South Africa, see Statistics South Africa, Governance, Public Safety and Justice Survey (GPSJS) 2018/19 (Pretoria: Stats SA, 2019).

[7] For a general overview and discussion, see Ab Currie, “Ten Ideas for Community-Based Justice” (Toronto: CFCJ, 2018). See further Ab Currie, “Community-Based Justice”, Slaw (26 May 2022).

[8] See further Lisa Moore, “Building a Business Case for Investing in Community-Based Justice”, Slaw (4 October 2018).

[9] See e.g. Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, Access to Civil & Family Justice: A Roadmap for Change (Ottawa: Action Committee on Access to Justice in Civil and Family Matters, October 2013) at 2; Trevor CW Farrow & Lesley A Jacobs, “Taking Meaningful Access to Justice in Canada Seriously” in Trevor CW Farrow & Lesley A Jacobs, The Justice Crisis: The Cost and Value of Accessing Law (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2021) at Introduction.

[10] For an overview of the CBJR project, see CFCJ, “Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR)”.

[11] A Government of Canada Crown Corporation, IDRC has a mandate “to initiate, encourage, support, and conduct research into the problems of the developing regions of the world and into the means for applying and adapting scientific, technical, and other knowledge to the economic and social advancement of those regions.” See IDRC, “About IDRC”.

[12] The CBJR “aims to compare the costs, benefits, challenges and opportunities for providing and scaling access to community-based justice services in Canada, Sierra Leone, Kenya and South Africa.” See CBJR.

[13] See AI Fofana et al, “Costly justice: Why communities in Sierra Leone turn to paralegals instead of Local Courts to resolve their justice problems”, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies (16 October 2020) and FM Conteh et al, “Paralegals, community agency and access to justice in Sierra Leone”, Namati (23 September 2020). See also CFCJ, “Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) – Kenya” (Toronto: CFCJ), online: CFCJ <>. See further Moore, “Building a Business Case for Investing in Community-Based Justice”, supra; CFCJ, “Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR)”, supra.

[14] See e.g. current access to justice initiatives from the OECD, World Bank, Open Society, World Justice Project, HiiL and many others.

[15] See e.g. Task Force on Justice, Justice for All – Final Report, supra note 4 at 15, 23.

[16] See ibid at 13; OECD, “Building a Business Case for Access to Justice”, An OECD White Paper in collaboration with the World Justice Project (Paris, 2019); Lisa Moore & Trevor C.W. Farrow, Investing in Justice: A Literature Review in Support of the Case for Improved Access (Toronto: CFCJ, 2019).

[17] See e.g. Peter Chapman et al, Grasping the Justice Gap: Opportunities and Challenges for People-Centered Justice Data (Washington, DC: World Justice Project; New York: Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies; Paris: OECD, 2021).

[18] OECD, “Building a Business Case for Access to Justice”, supra; Martin Gramaticov et al, A Handbook for Measuring the Costs and Quality of Access to Justice (Maklu & Tilburg Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies of Civil Law and Conflict Resolution Systems, 2009); A Tool for Justice: The Cost-Benefit Analysis of Legal Aid (World Bank, 2019).

[19] Moore & Farrow, Investing in Justice: A Literature Review in Support of the Case for Improved Access, supra.

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