An Opportunity to Strengthen Inclusive Development by Measuring Access to Civil Justice
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Unresolved legal problems are most likely to affect the populations and communities the 2030 Agenda seeks to reach.

The UN Statistical Commission has the opportunity to strengthen inclusion by formally adopting the IAEG-SDGs’ recommendations for the 2020 Comprehensive Review.

The recommended new indicator is "proportion of the population who have experienced a dispute in the past two years and who accessed a formal or informal dispute resolution mechanism, by type of mechanism”.

The 2030 Agenda offers a holistic vision of progress across 17 SDGs, amounting to a vision of the world without hunger, poverty or discrimination, and with clean water, effective services and gender equality. But how is vision translated into measurable action? Where can people and communities turn when something goes wrong, when commitments and rights aren’t upheld? 

Members of the UN Inter-Agency and Expert Group on the SDG indicators (IAEG-SDGs) and UN Statistical Commission want to know. And next week in New York, they can take action on a new source of data that can provide answers through the SDG indicator framework: civil justice data. 

Justice problems and disputes frequently arise across 2030 Agenda priority sectors. The Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies has synthesized common problems in a range of countries and found striking trends: 

  • Nearly a quarter of people face disputes over housing, land or neighbors.
  • Almost a third of people have justice problems related to money and debt, or as consumers;
  • One in five people have problems related to access to public services;
  • Almost one in 11 people are involved in family disputes; and
  • One in 12 people have justice needs related to employment or their businesses.

Importantly, studies consistently find that justice problems are linked with disadvantage: the poor and powerless are more likely to face such problems and are less likely to act. Unresolved legal problems are most likely to affect the populations and communities the 2030 Agenda seeks to reach.         

When the SDG indicators were established in 2015, some suggested that civil justice problems were either too complicated or too widespread to be included in the global development framework. But efforts by the Open Society Justice Initiative in collaboration with civil society organizations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), the Praia Group on Governance Statistics and UN agencies aimed to strengthen civil justice measurement tools.

We now know that generating better and more holistic civil justice data is feasible and impactful. Countries and civil society organizations increasingly find that civil justice data comprise a vital tool for tracking progress towards inclusive and sustainable development. Civil justice data help us understand what “access to justice for all” means in practice, as well as how to enforce SDG ambitions around poverty, health, decent work, gender equality and climate action.

Two initiatives of the UN Statistical Commission have been vital for analyzing civil justice data. First, the Praia City Group, established by the Commission in 2015, recently drafted a Handbook on Governance Statistics. The Handbook identifies an inclusive measurement strategy at a global level, bringing together criminal and civil justice methodologies, and embraces an approach to access to justice that starts from the perspective of people and communities, as opposed to an exclusive focus on institutions. It argues that measures of access to justice must capture multiple dimensions and perspectives as opposed to any single metric. It suggests analyzing the performance of justice institutions together with legal capability, empowerment, access to legal assistance and the overall policy environment. 

Endorsing this perspective, the IAEG-SDGs has recommended the inclusion of an additional indicator focused on civil justice in the 2020 Comprehensive Review of the global indicator framework. The Group is proposing as the additional measure: “proportion of the population who have experienced a dispute in the past two years and who accessed a formal or informal dispute resolution mechanism, by type of mechanism.”

This new indicator within the SDG framework will build on innovative work by governments, academics and civil society organizations in numerous countries—including Argentina, ColombiaSouth Africa and Indonesia—as well as global organizations and platforms. These efforts show how a focus on civil justice data can catalyze new strategies to improve development outcomes.

Data from this approach matter not just for access to justice or the rule of law, but also can reveal processes and impacts of exclusion.  Understanding what problems people and communities have and where they turn to for resolution (if anywhere) is vital for ensuring we leave no one behind. The UN Statistical Commission has the opportunity to strengthen inclusion by formally adopting the IAEG-SDGs’ recommendations for the 2020 Comprehensive Review. 

The author of this guest article, Peter Chapman, is an independent expert on access to justice and governance reform, working with non-profit and multilateral organizations from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Until 2019 he worked with the Open Society Justice Initiative.


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