Building the future of people-centred justice

Crime, environmental rights, land conflicts, family issues, disputes between workers and businesses: justice systems must contend with these issues everyday. And although judges, lawyers and other justice sector practitioners can effectively address such disputes in individual cases, resolving issues at scale remains a struggle.

Now more than ever we need to rethink this challenge. Addressing how justice systems can deliver fair, acceptable outcomes at scale so people can move forward with their lives, their work, and their business is our task. Unfortunately, conventional approaches are no longer sufficient. 

Meeting people’s demand for justice will strengthen trust and social cohesion and help mitigate the contributing factors of conflict. It will make the world a more inclusive and more peaceful place. It also brings immense social and economic benefits. Ecorys, an economic research firm, found that every one dollar invested in the justice system in the Netherlands adds an estimated $18 to GDP. In short, investments in responsive justice systems create strong economies too. So how do we get there?

To investigate a way forward, governments from 37 OECD countries met with leading researchers at the 2022 OECD Global Access to Justice Roundtable which took place from 21-23 September in Riga, Latvia. Discussions made it clear that justice systems must adopt the research and development (R&D) and innovation methods of other sectors. 

Moving current legal procedures online or adding more lawyers and courts will not be enough to address this gap in justice. While this is a good step forward, it ignores the fact that most disputes never make it to court to begin with. It also ignores that having a court ruling is often not the outcome people seek or need; not to mention the costs or need for a certain amount of (expert) knowledge and digital literacy skills.

Instead, a people-centred approach to justice – one based on data and evidence, and focused on ‘what works’ – ensures justice systems can scale and deliver effective outcomes that people need most. This is a huge change away from current systems designed with institutions in mind, especially those applying an ever-increasing avalanche of general rules and procedures to one case at a time. 

The OECD roundtable emphasised this re-prioritisation of people and outcomes. Now more than ever, implementing people-centred justice programming (PCJP) is the path forward. This approach anchors inclusive and thoughtful policies that realise sustained change.

Several countries are taking PCJP seriously. One innovative initiative shared during the OECD roundtable came from Spain. The country recently introduced a General Directorate for Digital Transformation which focuses on transforming the process and organisation through data-driven justice management. Setting up “help stations” in all municipalities with online access to the courts has helped create more affordable and more accessible justice solutions. For its part, Turkey introduced an app which allows its citizens to solicit legal advice. Other examples from the United States, Thailand, Canada, and parts of Latin America have focused on domestic violence, gender-based violence, and support for indigenous people and vulnerable groups such as children or people with disabilities.

Change is indeed happening. However, we also see that people-centred justice efforts underway in different contexts are also mostly single initiatives and small projects. A systemic, concerted programming approach, as discussed during the OECD forum, has yet to materialise. Nonetheless, the OECD has raised awareness. Solidifying PCJP and scaling the ‘game-changing’ tools and services should be the next step.

HiiL’s Trend Report: Delivering Justice Rigorously articulates this PCJP approach and, using case studies, recognises the innovations transforming the sector. In short, it advocates for the systemic and integrated approach to address the justice gap. 

As described in the Trend Report, PCJP consists of five core components: Gathering data on people’s justice needs and experiences; Promoting evidence-based practice; Scaling innovations and service delivery models; Creating an enabling environment to sustain the results; and Strengthening the movement. 

Larger-scale transformation requires a willingness to embrace innovation. Now justice systems are slowly opening up to R&D. Following the tracks of the healthcare sector, where investment in research, evidence-based practice, and sustainable financing led to rapid gains, the justice sector is witnessing an increase in quality and almost universal coverage of basic services.

The OECD forum proved there is growing alignment on people-centred justice and its components. It also showed that governments are looking for ways to develop PCJP. Maintaining this momentum can lead to long-awaited progress in how societies organise their justice systems. This has a crucial role in preventing and resolving conflicts. 

For HiiL, the shift to people-centred justice will continue in the six (and counting) countries where we have core programmes; with partners, including Pathfinders for Justice, who wish to change the justice sector for the better; and at various international forums including at the UN, OECD, and the International Association for Court Administration conference in Helsinki, Finland. 

A greater number of governments recognise that people-centred justice programming leads to millions of improved relationships, healthier lives, economic benefits, and relief from administrative burdens. PCJP is the new normal offering a stronger foundation and a better enabler for achieving SDG16 – equal access to justice for all – and all other SDGs.

Maurits Barendrecht is the Programme Director of the Netherlands at HiiL.

Further reading