9 April 2018
Equal Access to Civil Justice for All: How Will We Know When We Get There?
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Civil justice problems are common and can be most harmful to people who live at or near the margins of our societies.

To advance a transformative agenda, the IAEG should integrate access to civil justice measures into the SDGs indicator framework.

Members of the Inter-Agency and Expert Group (IAEG), responsible for Sustainable Development Goal indicators, have an opportunity to recognize the role access to civil justice plays in delivering sustainable development. The IAEG resumes discussion of SDG indicators the week of 9 April in Vienna, Austria, and the group should prioritize access to civil justice.

The SDGs articulate a positive, comprehensive vision of progress—ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring prosperity for all. But what happens when these ambitions are practically out of reach or the distribution of resources is unfair? Where can one turn to seek information on rights, challenge discrimination or justly resolve a dispute? How can the most vulnerable among us navigate complex and expensive systems to secure effective outcomes?

Target 16.3 recognizes that access to justice advances broader SDG priorities. While we often think justice is something that happens in courtrooms, for many people around the world, justice needs are present in day-to-day life. Civil justice problems are the most frequent—and often most pressing—legal problems people and communities face. Civil justice problems include issues like a family facing eviction, a woman seeking child support benefits from an absent spouse, or a health center denying a Roma man adequate health services due to discriminatory beliefs. These are development problems that have significant and disproportionate impacts on the poor.

To advance a transformative agenda, the IAEG must integrate access to civil justice measures into the SDGs indicator framework. The IAEG has previously selected two criminal justice measures for access to justice and the rule of law: victimization reporting rates and rates of pre-trial detention. These indicators, while important, fail to capture the many ways access to civil justice interacts with sustainable development.

The next meeting of the IAEG will consider a work plan for developing additional global indicators. The IAEG should build on their discussions of access to civil justice and launch an inclusive, participatory process to incorporate access to civil justice indicators. In 2015, civil society, state and multilateral organization representatives to the IAEG—including the Egypt, France, Germany, the United States, several UN agencies and the World Bank—argued for inclusion of access to civil justice as a concrete indicator. Unfortunately, the IAEG chose to prioritize exclusively criminal justice, agreeing to a table discussion on civil justice for a later date. Recognizing the limitations of this approach, in 2017 the IAEG endorsed “access to civil justice” as a priority theme for an additional global indicator. The IAEG should build on this momentum and incorporate access to civil justice in the work plan for additional indicators.

This week’s IAEG discussion comes at an opportune time. Legal needs surveys are an increasingly established methodology that seek to identify common and impactful problems, where people go for assistance, how they seek resolution and what impacts justice problems have. Recent years have seen a surge in countries and civil society organizations using legal needs methodologies to advance development planning and service delivery. Current developments include:

  • Dozens of governments have invested in stand-alone government surveys focused on justice, for example the 2017 Justice Gap survey in the United States or efforts planned by the South Korean Judiciary.
  • Statistical agencies are experimenting with the inclusion of legal needs methodologies in ongoing state surveys, for example by Colombia’s Statistical Agency and National Planning Department, Indonesian Statistical Agency (BPS), Kenya’s National Bureau of Statistics, and Statistics South Africa.
  • Philanthropic foundations and development organizations continue to fund national surveys, including in Mongolia, Ukraine, Nepal, and Sierra Leone in 2017, as well as population specific surveys in Moldova and Macedonia.
  • Comparative survey use is rapidly expanding across countries. The World Justice Project recently released its legal needs module survey findings from 45 countries in Global Insights on Access to Justice. By the end of 2018, WJP data will cover more than 100 countries. The Hague Institute for the Innovation of Law has used its Justice Needs and Satisfaction survey tool in more than a dozen countries, including most recently in Bangladesh, Kenya and Syrian refugee communities in Jordan.
  • In 2018, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), the Open Society Justice Initiative, and an advisory stream of experts will finalize and launch global methodological guidance on Legal Needs Surveys and Access to Justice.

These survey initiatives are showing important developmental and policy impacts. The IAEG should learn from these experiences in identifying an access to civil justice indicator. In this Open Society Justice Initiative policy brief, we describe how legal needs methodologies are helping countries more effectively respond to justice and development problems. They enable policymakers to shape effective legal aid and justice reform frameworks by identifying common legal problems, impacts, strategies for resolution, and potential solutions. Linking legal needs methodologies to ongoing government survey efforts strengthens national development planning and delivery of public services.

Civil justice problems are common and can be most harmful to people who live at or near the margins of our societies. Giving up on them and ignoring their injustices is not an option; access to civil justice is a public good. The IAEG should seize the opportunity of additional indicators and advance a transformative civil justice agenda to ensure that no one is left behind.

The authors of this guest article are Peter Chapman, Senior Policy Officer, Open Society Justice Initiative, and Sumaiya Islam, Senior Program Manager, Legal Empowerment, Open Society Justice Initiative.

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