Finding out what works to guarantee access to justice for people with less than $2 a day. 


The Microjustice research programme focuses on the most urgent access to justice issues for individuals, such as: identity documents, divorce, child support and inheritance, land and home property, work and payment, neighbour relations, issues with government agents related to government services. What do we know about access to justice that is both affordable for the poor and sustainable without subsidies?

In an action research project in close cooperation with the biggest Dutch development NGO, Oxfam Novib, we worked with 5 of their more than 50 project partners working on human rights or legal aid. The goal of the project was to establish the best practices of delivering access to justice to disadvantaged clients, often belonging to the poorest 20% of the population.

This research, conducted with Cewla (Cairo), Deme So and Wildaf (Mali), Praxis (Azerbaijan), ASK (Bangladesh) and Haguruka (Rwanda), we focused on the following issues: legal needs, scope and sustainability, legal information, dispute resolution methods. Based on the results, several follow up projects have been started.

Different Settings, similarities in approaches

The research identified important differences in setting. In Egypt, it is a less attractive option for a woman to live on her own, because this is seen as unsafe (in terms of harassment by men) and socially undesirable. This influences a woman’s bargaining position in her relationship to her husband and to the male members of her family. In Mali, the social norm of helping others with mediating their conflicts makes it more likely that disputes over rights are solved, an option which is lacking in Bangladesh, where people feel much less empowered to solve their problems. Azerbaijan and Mali have a small number of lawyers with formal qualifications, whereas Egypt is one of the most lawyer-dense countries in the world. Rwanda has a better functioning system of local courts, in the form of the Abunzi system where both parties can choose a person from a number of local leaders to resolve disputes.

These differences in settings obviously influence outcomes. But during this research, many similarities became apparent. The justiciable problems are located primarily in the same relationships everywhere: husband/wife (divorce, child support, domestic violence), intra-family (property disputes about inheritance) and employment. The basic methods of trying to help people access their rights are similar as well: obtaining legal information, contacting the other party, negotiating, bargaining about distributive issues, invoking a neutral decision and ensuring compliance. Legal rules may have a different wording and sometimes suggest different outcomes, but they have similar roles in solving problems. These similarities suggest opportunities for exchanging best practices and learning across borders.

Opportunities for innovation

The biggest opportunities for improving access to justice and enhancing legal empowerment seem to be the following:

  • Improved legal information and legal education, using state of the art methods and economies of scale in producing the information. 
  • Exchanging best practices and tools for dispute resolution, with a focus on improving access to courts and informal tribunals, or creating new options for neutral decision-making, so that beneficiaries can obtain a credible threat of a neutral decision, a better bargaining position and more fair results in amicable settlements.
  • One of the most intriguing issues is why organizations active in legal aid do not scale up beyond the size of a small law firm, serving around 1000 or perhaps 2000 clients a year. Is it the organisational model of an NGO? Are legal services requiring predominantly local knowledge and social networks? 
  • Another important issue is what can be done to enhance access to a neutral decision maker if negotiations fail. The facilitators of the five organisations and their clients identified this as the biggest bottleneck in the process of resolving disputes in a way that is fair and just, given the rights of the people involved. Finding out what works on the ground in this respect, experimenting, innovating, and building evidence-based practices from this, seems to be urgent.
  • Although codification of rights so that people are informed about them is a 4500 year old practice, legal information strategies are only beginning to be assessed and researched systematically from the perspective of their usefulness for beneficiaries. Here again, a systematic evidence base would be helpful.

Follow up projects

Based on these research results, we and our partners entered into a great many follow up projects.

  • Literature review projects, collecting evidence on sustainable and affordable ways to resolve the most urgent and common disputes.
  • An Innovating Justice Forum 2012, dedicated to Basic Justice Care for Everyone, and issuing a trend report on this topic
  • A Microjustice Toolbox and Sharing Rules project, in which we facilitated the development of a database of best practices by more than 10 legal aid organisations working in a variety of countries

Project details

Project Leader:
Contact:Jin Ho Verdonschot