The Pathfinders’ Task Force on Justice estimates that a total of 5.1 billion people – two-thirds of the world’s population – lack meaningful access to justice, comprising the global “justice gap”.
We need a shift towards putting people at the center of justice systems, services, and policies.
SDG indicator 16.3.3 links sustainable and inclusive development to the justice problems people experience in everyday life, related to health, housing, one’s family, employment, or basic services.
By Peter Chapman and Maaike de Langen
In July 2021, 44 countries will present Voluntary National Reviews (VNRs) at the UN’s High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development (HLPF). This is an opportunity to report national progress towards the SDGs, with SDG 16 (peace, justice, and strong institutions) front and center.
This year’s HLPF theme is sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic that promotes the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of sustainable development. The Pathfinders’ Task Force on Justice estimates that a total of 5.1 billion people – two-thirds of the world’s population – lack meaningful access to justice, comprising the global “justice gap.” Access to justice for all by 2030 is a centerpiece of SDG 16 and core to a sustainable and resilient recovery from the pandemic.
Access to Justice in the SDGs
In 2020, the UN Statistical Commission adopted a new SDG indicator to measure progress towards the goal of achieving justice for all. In measuring the “proportion of the population who have experienced a dispute in the past two years and who accessed a formal or informal dispute resolution mechanism,” indicator 16.3.3 takes a people-centered approach and captures the justice problems people face and how they try to resolve them.
When the official SDG monitoring framework was adopted in 2017, SDG 16 had two indicators to measure progress, both focused on the criminal justice system. However, many of the most common justice problems that people face relate to civil and administrative justice. Nearly a quarter of people with justice problems are involved in disputes over housing, land, or neighbors. Almost a third of the problems relate to money and debt, or consumer issues. One in five problems are related to access to public services. Almost one in 11 concern family disputes, and one in 12 are legal needs related to employment or their businesses.
In short, SDG indicator 16.3.3 links sustainable and inclusive development to the justice problems people experience in everyday life: problems with health, housing, one’s family, employment, or basic services. The indicator can reveal differences in experience and outcome for different groups and inform people-centered strategies. It can also help target investments to ensure effectiveness and a focus on those furthest behind. We look forward to a refined methodology for this indicator – which is currently under development by its custodian agencies (OECD, UNDP and UNODC) – and standardized data collection, which we hope will be increasingly common by 2023.
Opportunities for People-Centered Justice in the 2021 VNR
When preparing a VNR, countries are encouraged to report on their progress towards realizing access to justice for all using available data for the new justice indicator. While not all countries will have readily available data in 2021, they can report on the basis of available data, as well as describe efforts to expand the collection and use of people-centered justice data.
A new Pathfinders fact sheet explains how countries can incorporate reporting on people-centered justice in their 2021 VNRs, in four key ways. First, use existing data to assess SDG indicator 16.3.3 and people-centered justice. Several countries reporting in 2021 already have the data required for reporting on 16.3.3. For example, Colombia’s Access to Effective Justice Index measures justice from a people-centered perspective, combining survey and administrative data. Countries that do not have such national data could use global sources, like the World Justice Project, which has 16.3.3 data for over 100 countries, or HiiL’s Justice Dashboard and its underlying data.
Second, report on people-centered justice beyond SDG 16.3.3. All countries collect data related to the most common justice problems, employment, property and evictions, family issues, and access to public services, including health and education. Through their VNRs, countries can analyze what these data mean for people-centered justice.
For example, existing data show that increasing poverty rates may raise the need for social safety net programs, which in turn may trigger justice problems. The loss of one’s job can cause collateral justice problems with money, housing, or employment benefits. Illness can trigger loss of employment or medical debt. Each area of a VNR offers opportunities to connect and document linkages between justice, sustainable development, and resilience.
Third, highlight policy innovations for people-centered justice. The pandemic has catalyzed tremendous change and innovation within justice systems. The VNR process offers an opportunity to highlight new strategies within justice systems and service delivery. Several countries have turned to new technologies and new non-lawyer models to expand access to justice. New partnerships have also emerged that focus on resolving and preventing people’s justice problems.
Finally, commit to strengthening people-centered justice data. Countries can use their 2021 VNRs to make commitments on gathering justice data and steps they will take to improve people-centered justice reporting by their next VNR. For example, countries can commit to fielding the new survey module for 16.3.3 and access to justice. They could describe priorities to better use available data to target the delivery of people-centered justice services. And they could highlight steps to harness civil society data or data from other social sectors to inform justice strategies.
Building a More Just Future
Justice is a thread that runs through all 17 SDGs. Without justice, the world will not be able to end poverty, reduce inequality, reach the furthest behind, strengthen sustainability, or achieve peace and inclusion. Moreover, the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed and deepened inequalities and injustices.
To achieve the goal of providing equal access to justice for all, we need a shift towards putting people at the center of justice systems, services, and policies. We will know if we are making progress on access to justice by analyzing the extent to which people are able to resolve and prevent their justice problems, and use justice as a platform to participate in their economies and societies.
Reporting on these data, or committing to collect and use them, is an important step forward to reaching the world’s 2030 Agenda. The data ecosystems for health, education, and the environment were not created overnight. Critical steps and priorities for building a data ecosystem on people-centered justice data are increasingly clear. The VNR 2021 provides an opportunity for countries to take important steps.
This guest article is authored by Peter Chapman, Advisor, Justice for All, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies and Maaike de Langen, Program Lead, Justice for All, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies.