This blog is written by Peter Chapman, a program officer working on law and development with the Open Society Justice Initiative
The new Sustainable Development Goals include a specific target on ensuring access to justice for all. To present a
clear picture of progress towards this objective we should rely on diverse sources of data, including data generated by civil society organizations providing legal assistance.
Last year we partnered with the Human Rights and Legal Services (HRLS) program of BRAC in Bangladesh, to look at how HRLS’s day-to-day administrative data could help one better understand a nuanced picture of access to justice in Bangladesh. The HRLS program is one of the largest civil society led legal aid programs in the world, operating from more than 400 offices in nearly every district (local administrative unit) in Bangladesh. It is also uniquely situated within a private sector development organization that focuses on access to health, education and financial services for poor and marginalized communities. The program works from the community to the courts and provides significant legal literacy services as well as assisting with thousands of mediations and court cases a year. Since the late 1980s, HRLS has run over 166,000 legal education courses with over 3.8 million graduates.
In a new publication by BRAC’s Research and Evaluation Division, we present findings from our analysis of legal assistance data available within the HRLS program. HRLS documents encounters with thousands of community members who are victims of injustices and follows these issues through to resolution by informal justice processes or formal courts. Our analysis of HRLS’s data found impacts of basic legal services in several areas; including improved social wellbeing of clients, improved economic wellbeing of clients and a strengthened connection between individuals and government and non-government institutions.
Our review suggests that HRLS plays an important institutional role in helping Bangladeshis secure more just outcomes. HRLS helps clients navigate different institutions to equitably resolve their disputes, including those who have been unable to resolve a case elsewhere. We found HRLS provides more points of access for justice seekers and supports court proceedings for clients whose HRLS-led alternative dispute resolution (ADR) proceeding has failed. HRLS services seem to be regarded as a low cost avenue that can produce socially satisfactory outcomes for clients through ongoing support.
HRLS also contributes to the economic security of clients, who are overwhelmingly women. HRLS regularly supports women to recover maintenance and mehr or dower — a safety net payment or guarantee to women at the time of marriage—from their husbands. HRLS uses ADR and if need be, court processes, to help women to recover a good proportion of the dower and maintenance owed to them by their husband. Our casefile reviews found that when HRLS used ADR they were able to help women recover on average just over $750 USD from their husbands in a timely and localized process. Through court cases they were able to recover on average just over $850 USD. These are significant sums in a country where average monthly income is approximately $150 USD.
We did not conduct an external or supplemental impact evaluation, as we sought to explore how day-to-day civil society data could contribute to assessments of progress. Governments and the international development community are increasingly calling for evidence-based measures of progress that are cost effective. Through the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), member states demanded “quality, accessible, timely and reliable disaggregated data” to “help with the measurement of [developmental] progress and to ensure that no one is left behind.”
Globally, civil society legal empowerment programs are making valuable contributions to access to justice and inclusive development at the local level. From providing assistance with navigating bureaucratic processes to alternative dispute resolution systems that are fair and just, civil society groups provide practical avenues to seek rights and resolve disputes within and outside of government systems. These programs add to the range of access points to justice, offer avenues to pursue government accountability and improve community knowledge of their rights, often at a scale and level of legitimacy within the community that is challenging for governments to match. These services are becoming increasingly more diverse, organized and available and are an important addition to government and religious or traditional justice mechanisms.
Our study demonstrates the types of lessons that can be drawn from the administrative data of one large civil society legal empowerment program. The study findings suggest that support given by civil society justice programs can enhance social as well as economic well-being of poor and vulnerable individuals and communities. Programs can provide these services while simultaneously strengthening the connection and trust between people and legal aid providing institutions. Similar administrative data will likely be available in other such community-based legal empowerment programs. As governments and development partners look towards implementation of the SDGs they should also consider and support civil society contributions that could be used to understand progress toward access to justice.