Our Common Agenda and realising people-centred justice for all

An important step was taken last week in anchoring people-centred justice in the efforts of the UN member states and the organisation to realise SDG 16 and justice for all. In a consultation organised by the President of the UN General Assembly, HiiL’s CEO, Sam Muller, set out how people-centred justice can be programmed and which investments are needed for that.

At the opening of the UN General Assembly in September last year, the UN Secretary-General published his vision for tackling the challenges facing the world as the UN turns 75, seen against the backdrop of the 2030 SDG Agenda. In his report, Our Common Agenda, António Guterres notes that he is picking up an ‘ever deeper crisis of trust’ and a ‘frayed social contract’. One of the reasons for this, he notes is that institutions are “[f]ailing to deliver what people need most, including basic services”. Justice systems included.

“Justice systems are part of the problem”, agreed Sam during the session. As the Task Force on Justice worked out in its 2019 report, they deliver only for the few. Furthermore, 5.1 billion people – two-thirds of the world’s population – lack meaningful access to justice. And 1.5 billion of them face unresolved civil, administrative or crime-related problems. The most vulnerable are the most affected. Three Justice in a Pandemic reports, which Sam co-authored, show that the figures are now worse.

“But justice systems are also a large part of the solution – as critical drivers of trust”, Sam went on to say. “It is the place where conflicts are resolved, rights can be invoked, frustrations may be channelled, and violence can be prevented. It strengthens trust. Between people – because conflicts get resolved and it is known that the rules apply to everyone. In-state institutions – because, they too, are seen to be accountable and because they deliver a critical public good: justice and fairness in people’s lives. And – as an aside – it’s also good for the economy“.

“So if there ever was a time to massively invest more in justice systems, it is now”. Sam appealed. He highly commended the Secretary-General’s new vision of the rule of law that puts people at the center. And he fully agreed that such a new people-centred vision should be inclusive, concrete and practical, and with one primary focus: delivery.

Sam pointed out that in past years an evidence-based and innovation-driven approach has emerged to realise this people-centred justice vision.1 “It now needs to be massively scaled up and the member states, supported by the UN have a critical role to play in that”. Sam set out four concrete investments that are needed to make people-centred justice happen, all anchored in HiiL’s new three-year strategy.

First: to help countries build capacity to regularly collect and share data about people’s justice problems and experiences. This data helps prioritise and measure effectiveness. Countries like Argentina, Canada, Niger, and others are already collecting such people-centred justice data. HiiL has developed tools for this. These efforts can be further systematised and scaled.

Second: investments to build the capacity of justice professionals to improve evidence-based work and approaches. This means capturing and sharing which interventions work best to prevent and resolve specific justice problems. This is also being done. For example, in Uganda guidelines on what works best for family justice have been developed.

Third: investment in innovation such as Gamechangers that get the justice interventions that work best to as many people as possible, and as efficiently as possible. This is about delivery. Local justice centers, user-friendly contracts, and platforms to help people claim access to public services are examples of such people-centred game-changing solutions. They can be adapted, upgraded, and scaled. This is an area where we have seen youth and young lawyers come together and excel.

Fourth: investment in an enabling environment for encouraging people-centred justice. Over the past two years, thanks to the SDG vision of justice for all, more justice leaders than ever have come together to work on this. One key initiative globally is the Justice Action Coalition of the Pathfinders for Justice which is supported by organisations such as the Justice Leaders and The Elders. Regionally, efforts include informal meetings HiiL is facilitating in the Arab region. While our stakeholder dialogues held in countries where HiiL works have contributed at national levels. Taken altogether, this is an area where the UN and its member states can provide a lot of value with their convening power.

“What we need is not rocket science. Its core components are known. It is a good investment,” concluded Sam. 

Adding to the urgency of the message, the other speaker on the topic of justice, Sara Hossain, Honorary Director of the Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust and member of the Task Force on Justice stressed local and ground-up approaches for achieving people-centred justice.

“Realising a new vision of the rule of law and putting people at the centre of justice requires collaboration amongst actors within the justice profession,” she said. “The legal profession, in particular, can be more inclusive and innovative in how it operates, and work alongside others beyond the profession such as human rights defenders, paralegals, community justice advocates as well as state authorities.”

A copy of Sam’s speech can be found here, including a summary of questions asked and relevant closing remarks by the UN’s Under Secretary for Policy, Volker Turk.

« Accelerating the SDGs through sustainable financing and building trust » was the second thematic cluster of Common Agenda consultations. You can watch the full event at UN Web TV.


  1. Facilitated by the Pathfinders for Justice, the concept has been developed further in the past three years in a number of high-level gatherings and documents: The Hague Declaration on Access to Justice, the ministerial summits of 20 October 2020, 14 April 2021,  and 6 December 2021, an EU conference on people-centred e-justice held in April 2021, and the work of the Justice Leaders and The Elders.  A Justice Action Coalition has been set up, consisting of countries that want to lead on realising it. Three Justice in a Pandemic Briefings were produced, analysing how people-centred justice can play a role in building back better. The OECD has developed a conceptual framework for people-centred justice.

Further reading