A Talk with the Prime Minister

One of my highlights at Davos this year was a closed meeting with the newly elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. We were with a small group of international civil society organisations from the field of human rights, rule of law and peace. The meeting was held under the Chatham House rule so I will not disclose what others or the PM said. Nothing in that rule however prevents me from telling you what I contributed.

Each time I am at Davos I marvel about how many great ideas for solving global and national challenges I come across. Poverty, education, health, and the environment: each of these domains is awash with great initiatives to make the world a better place. Fintech that will make banking much more accessible. Blockchain technology that will virtually eliminate corruption. Education robots (I interacted with one) that will make education much more widely available. Cheap satellites that will beam high bandwidth Internet to the remote places that governments don’t reach. And I could go on. What bothers me is how little thought is given to the justice infrastructure that is needed to support all those great ideas. A functioning justice system is either assumed to be there or seen as a relatively minor and manageable task that can be done at the end of the design phase. It is not (on both counts).

Having a functional justice system is not a given. With ‘functional’ I mean two things. Firstly it should be accessible and generally produce decisions that are seen as just and fair by most people. These procedures and decisions can vary enormously: from a court decision on a divorce or breach of contract, to a procedure that produces a fair election or a good law. Secondly, functional justice system must have the ability to continue to consistently renew and improve itself to produce procedures that provide the best value for society.

What different rules will be needed if banks and money become mobile phones? What will the blockchain technology mean for criminal procedures? What happens if everybody in the world has access to the Internet? Can our current employment dispute procedures handle massive changes on the labour markets? How well can ministries of justice, parliaments, judiciaries, and the other pistons of the engine that produces justice systems ensure that they adapt, renew, and continue to provide the best value for society.

Here’s what I shared with the Prime Minister: Canada has a huge contribution to make. There is a small group, to which HiiL Innovating Justice belongs, that is pushing governments, international organisations, and investors to build real innovation capacity into justice systems. Not because it’s fun, nice, or fashionable, but because it is badly needed. Our future stability and prosperity depends on it. Canada has a few amazing people and organisations who belong to that group. They should be made part of a renewed approach to rule of law development by CIDA. An approach that goes beyond training judges and providing technical assistance to draft laws, as almost all rule of law development organisations generally do. Some of the impressive organisations and people I’ve had the pleasure of working with on justice innovation include the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice, the ministry of justice of British Columbia, the Canadian Bar Association and its Equal Justice Initiative, and great thinkers like Gillian Hadfield (who will come out with a fabulous book on this issue aptly called Rules for a Flat World: Why Humans Invented Law and How to Reinvent it for a Complex Global Economy).

Some of the elements of this new approach to rule of law development approach must build include (notes I took from a workshop at the Overseas Development Institute):

  • Always be guided by problems, not institutions. Focus on problems on which there is some consensus. From problems, build terms of reference for solutions. Include a wide diversity of experts – not just lawyers. Look for best practices, but embed whatever is done in the environment where it has to work. Build a clever business case for your problem. But be careful. You can loose the original focus as you build the business case. So: keep in touch with the problem.
  • ‘Locally led’ is often an empty phrase. It means more than building ‘buy in’ or teaching civil society organisations to ‘hold government institutions to account’. You need local leaders; brokers who are also able to bring in government institutions. They connect and organize and drive multi-stakeholder conversations. They build constituencies for change.
  • Data is hugely important for knowing the problem, and for learning and acting on learning. This includes but is not limited to surveys. Radio shows, social media activity, are also important sources of information. This is not really used.
  • Justice is a risky sector to engage in. There is always the potential of doing harm. There are many actors. There are formal and informal ecosystems. All this limits the room for experimentation, which, at the same time, we need to effectively purposefully muddle. A key word in this approach is learning. This means: assure you can learn and communicate the learning.
  • Perspectives are not aligned. Donors want Big Programmes. It is said to save administrative costs. At the international level there is a tendency to lock into Big Targets (now Justice Goal 16 of the SDG’s). However: locally led is the opposite of donor driven. The challenge is how to support locally embedded actors to find solutions without being driving to solutions by the way money is being organised.
  • We don’t really have the budget rules, tender processes, logframes, and evaluation mechanisms to work in this way.

You’ll understand that I did not share all of this with the PM. Just the essence of it. I won’t disclose what he answered. But we do need the Canadians.