The inclusion of the provision of ‘access to justice for all’ in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda (under Goal 16.3) was a galvanising development for those of us who work on developing justice solutions for excluded communities around the world.
None of us thought that realising the goal would be easy—starting with the most basic challenge of ensuring funding for legal services. Indeed, in recent years, we have seen some very definite setbacks in efforts to provide legal services support to all. In the United States the new Trump Administration is proposing to reduce funding for the federal Legal Services Corporation, which was seeking $502m in funding for 2018—a proposal that has sparked pushback from the legal community and which may yet be resisted in Congress. In Indonesia, there is a significant budget cut of nearly 60% in 2017 as part of a larger national effort of diverting public funds while the justice needs of a large number of Indonesians goes largely unmet. Legal Aid South Africa continues to face significant budget pressure from the National Treasury and in 2015/2016 they already funded a deficit from cash reserves.
These cuts underline a stark fact: actors in the justice sector need an evidence-backed business plan. Given the disconnect between how resources get allocated and the policy aspirations of not leaving anyone behind, there is work to be done. If we are to make progress on SDG Goal 16.3, actors in the justice sector need to persuade policy makers that basic legal services are an essential investment—and that spending money on justice services ultimately saves money elsewhere. Where do we find the relevant data?
Every day frontline justice organisations collect rich case data which shows this: civil legal aid services are transforming lives. A low-income person dealing with an eviction notice, without adequate knowledge of the law or legal support can become homeless unless they can get advice and help on using the law; in addition to this proximate impact they might also lose their income or suffer serious health impacts. Hundreds and thousands of similar cases are left untapped for their aggregate policy potential in the rich databases of legal aid organisations across the world. Legal aid organisations can be one of the most trusted sources of information in the justice sector, producing specific data on priorities and obstacles for specific justice issues.
Legal problems have significant impacts on the economy, health and inclusion. While justice systems have typically been built to respond primarily to pressing criminal justice issues, civil justice problems—housing, employment, access to public benefits—are tremendously frequent, across communities and across countries. These are issues rooted in discrimination, power and participation. Communities and individuals need assistance to understand legal frameworks, support to take action and ultimately empowerment to shape the direction of the law and their lives.
The challenge is to demonstrate these impacts with the kind of hard data that policy makers will respond to. Civil society actors are beginning to be more strategic in using data from within the justice system and from their everyday casework to show how early intervention and flexible assistance prevents both legal, but also broader social, problems. Some governments are even looking towards transparent systems of measuring progress, so they can track effects and document impact of civil legal services across sectors (including health, education, and employment). The combination of this data can changes the ways in which justice advocates engage the policymaking process.
In October 2016, the Open Society Justice Initiative convened a cross-regional exchange on access to justice and use of data in Washington DC. Justice providers, policymakers, researchers, advocates, and data experts from Indonesia, Nepal, South Africa and the United States joined the conversation. Our discussions uncovered commonalities in using data within the justice sector to understand needs, improve services and strengthen the public case for resources across sectors.
We discussed how government and civil society organisations are using organisational data to improve delivery of legal services. Civil society providers in Nepal, South Africa and Indonesia use case management systems to capture and analyse data to understand their client’s experience of accessing government institutions and public services. Government agencies and research institutes are using household surveys to offer more comprehensive views of access to justice from the perspective of ordinary people seeking justice in and out of the court system. Several participants also discussed how indices – tools to weigh and compare access to justice within or across countries – are helpful in presenting data on justice in a simple and accessible way to policy makers and the general public.
Many challenges nonetheless persist. Even the most basic administrative data on justice – case data from police, courts and administrative agencies – is missing, or not properly organised, accessible, or publicly available. Even where data is available, it is often piecemeal. And we know far too little about which forms of legal assistance deliver the most impact. With these limitations it is hard to make a concrete, tactical empirical case for access to justice in budgetary negotiations.
We know that demand for basic legal services is increasing, particularly for low-income and vulnerable communities while at the same time we see a decrease in resources for basic justice services. The trend for increasing costs of unmet legal needs to individuals, the economy and wider society is significant. A publicly-funded, robust civil legal aid services can be part of the solution to this challenge. As legal aid organisations and statistical agencies around the world generate and leverage systematic data on people’s everyday justice problems, they can demonstrate that civil legal aid is part of a prevention strategy that are not only about the ‘quick wins’ for individuals but also about the longer term gains for our society as a whole.
Sumaiya Islam guides the work of Open Society Justice Initiative in Asia with a focus on strengthening basic justice services for underserved communities.
Peter Chapman is a policy officer working on law and development with the Open Society Justice Initiative. He has a particular focus on community-based justice services and natural resource governance.
Akhila Kolisetty is a consultant working with the Open Society Foundations