How Access to Justice Can Stop a Problem from Turning into a Crisis

How much does justice cost? Governments typically know how much it costs to run their justice institutions, to pay judges and court staff. But this view doesn’t offer a true picture of the costs of a population struggling to access justice.

How much does it cost not to provide access to justice? In 2013, a study by an Argentinian NGO [link in Spanish], La Asociación Civil por la Igualdad y la Justicia, looked at how people living in slum neighborhoods of Buenos Aires and two other smaller cities were affected by “significant legal events”—events such as family disputes, problems getting access to public benefits or being victims of a crime. Roughly 60 percent of the 600 people surveyed had experienced such an event, mostly over lack of access to government services. Of them 60 percent again said that the trouble had affected their health and well-being; 35 percent said they had lost money, and 14 percent had family problems as a result. The legal trouble affected not just the individual involved, but also family members. 

It’s easy to see how this can happen. A problem with an unscrupulous landlord could be avoided by a tenant aware of her rights, with confidence and practical tools to enforce them. Without this, the issue might escalate, creating stress on a breadwinner, resulting in eviction, fueling destructive behavior, and damaging family relationships; losing a home can break up a family. The problem escalates.

Governments don’t regularly think in these terms: what are the costs and what are the savings for a government to invest in legal prevention that might stop a problem from turning into a crisis? How much money does a government spend picking up the pieces, dealing with the symptoms? 

Researchers in the United Kingdom, for instance, found that the poor are more likely to experience legal problems and that legal problems often cluster together—one problem leads to another. In country after country, town after town, the most frequent legal problems are civil issues, often affecting nearly half a population. Common problems include consumer disputes, employment issues, challenges accessing health and social benefits, land and property problems, family disputes, complications with neighbors, and debt. Such issues can have significant health impacts

Despite these important findings, we continue to know far too little about how prevalent legal problems are, what the direct and indirect social and economic costs of unresolved legal problems are to the individuals and the state and what strategies are most effective to respond to such legal issues. That needs to change if countries are to make progress towards Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals, with its commitment to “ensure equal access to justice for all.”

Historically, in too many parts of the world, the notion of “access to justice” has meant only access to courthouses or, in some instances, access to a defense attorney when charged with a crime. While such legal representation is sacrosanct in guaranteeing due process, for most people access to justice extends far beyond the walls of the courthouse—into their neighborhoods and homes. Indeed, researchers found that only five percent of legal problems are settled in court across a range of countries. Large numbers of legal problems go unresolved because of cost, a lack of trust in state institutions or a lack of knowledge of how to proceed. Of those legal issues that are resolved, the vast majority are addressed through direct negotiation with the other party, administrative processes or through community-based dispute resolution. 

Flexible forms of legal assistance can result in real benefits and real cost savings. In New York City, an estimate commissioned by the New York City Bar Association found that the city could potentially save $320 million—annually—in shelter savings and affordable housing services by offering legal support to tenants. In New South Wales, Australia, the government stresses flexible legal assistance as “early intervention” to prevent legal problems from escalating.

Improving our understanding of what legal problems are most common and most pressing is essential knowledge for policymakers in crafting meaningful policy. In late 2016, we partnered with the Organization of Co-Operation and Development (OECD) to bring together government statisticians, justice sector officials, researchers and NGOs to advance the ways we understand people’s legal issues, their impacts and effective strategies for resolution. In a two-day technical workshop we discussed tools to understand and respond to people’s day-to-day legal problems. 

Much of our conversation focused on tactics to improve how we understand legal issues faced by the population and what these existing tools tell us about effective models to respond. Since the 1980s, more than 30 countries have used legal needs or paths to justice surveys to understand how people resolve their legal problems. These surveys are an essential first step in improving understanding of the most frequent justice and development needs people face and how these issues can be more equitably and effectively addressed. Building on our 2016 workshop, the Justice Initiative—with the OECD, the Praia City Group, national governments, and civil society—will continue to test and implement new tools to help policymakers respond more effectively. 

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Always helpful to understand how limited access to justice in any country potentiates the risk for considerable economic impact on vulnerable societies. We are working to develop new interventions in the world's newest country South we welcome the network of ideas that will inform our community access strategies in RSS.Thanks,

Joe Corcoran - Country Director
Search for Common Ground
Juba, South Sudan

Joseph, for some reason I wept when I read your comment, the struggles of our people will continue until we have enough people saying enough is enough. The government keeps us weakened by trying to silence the voices for social justice and change.

Whatever I can do to help you from the U.S., please let me know how we can collaborate our efforts on a global market.

Most Sincerely,


Many thanks for your reply, Joe. I appreciate that you're looking at the connections between access to justice and economic impact. OECD will soon post our workshop report in the link included above (, which might give you additional ideas for programming in RSS.
- Peter Chapman, OSJI

Germany, with increasing numbers of poor citizens and increasing numbers of foreign refugees, as well as many undecided conflicts and poorly made or super-complex laws is facing the problem of access to legal assistance due to unbearable expenses and poor quality of assistance by lawyers, provided from courts on demand. Decreasing Rule of Law quality implicates increasing Rule of Violence cases quantity, or worse, feeding development of Rule of extremists.
Hope dies last, they say, but reality shows that it dies first in legal conflicts, whatever nature, lacking sufficient financial support.

This article reminds the reality what most of countries in the World is facing. Even the most highly regarded in Human Rights promoting country like Norway itself has a lot of flaw in implement legal system once it comes to consumer rights disputes. Even a consumer who is being wrongly accused by delivery firm could be ended up to pay more than 5000 US dollars for wrongly accused and the judges were not following international trade regulations. It seemed to be most of judges are being corrupted or intentionally favor to multi corporate firms than standing up for the truth. Therefore it is urgent to address justice system around the world before a huge crisis fall upon mankind.

My 50 years as progressive lawyer and advocate for the least represented has demonstrated the limits of formal legal proceedings and the need for creative use of less structured (and less expensive/time consuming) approaches to bring about needed change. Please keep me in the loop; am interested in assisting development. Thank you, Dan Pochoda

We too in PNG are denied our legal rights due to costly legal fees and are part of the population strugging to access justice.

Does the Open Society have any contacts in my country South Africa. If not I would willingly help to establish such contacts. As you have no doubt seen, justice in South Africa is taking quite a hammering right now.

Thanks for the comment, Antonio. Actually George Soros, our founder, began his formal philanthrophic work in South Africa in 1979, when he launched a scholarship program for black students. Our Open Society Foundations - South Africa (OSF-SA) initiative is very active funding work in a range of areas, including legal services and justice. You can find out more at the foundation's website here
Best wishes, Jonathan Birchall, Communications, Open Society Foundations

A really interesting article, thanks. In the UK, our legal aid system has been slashed and we are starting to see the impact. Court fees have also been raised to a high level, which makes it harder for individuals to access their rights. I volunteer at Toynbee Hall and they are inundated with people needing help. The policy is extremely short-termist and leaves people to represent themselves in court, often requiring significantly more time and resources from the court system and producing worse results. I would be interested to hear about further research on the wider implications of an inaccessible legal system, and how to solve the problem.

Nice ariticle and really no one estimates economical losses by those who belong to 'have not' who are mostly left out from access to public services. The situation is extremely bleak in developing and underdeveloped world and governments never factor in these people when discussing legal reforms to improve access to justice where mostly focus is on ruling elite and those have access to better services

Thanks for your comment, Noreen. I hope that in the years to come we're able to make more effective arguments about the scope and nature of people's legal problems and the social and economic impacts of these problems. Evidence doesn't necessarily lead to better policy making, but it might (slowly) help to shift conversation towards more meaningful reform and policies.
- Peter Chapman, Open Society Justice Initiative

Police brutality, violence against women, land grabbing etc etc are many of the wrongs that we cannot fight due to lack of understanding of our rights and limited access to legal assistance - which is very costly in Papua New Guinea. Yes, we need help!

The article adequately captures the need to promote access to justice for marginalised communities and people in under-resourced settings. As a past fellow of the Open Society Justice Initiative, I have practical and tangible evidence of how promoting access to justice among the poor and financially under-resourced helps to prevent low level non-State based conflicts and above all create legally empowered individuals and communities. My plea as a human rights activist is for governments in the global South to collaborate with civil society, human rights activists and legal practitioners who offer pro-bono legal services in expanding access to justice programmes

Even in the city of New York ,a person may be arrested for an alleged minor offense (perhaps even falsely) .....remanded (sent to jail) to await trial. can takes several weeks before a court date is set and a legal aid lawyer is assigned and several more months before a resolution of the charges (not always a just resolution) is achieved .....". it is easy to see how the incarcerated person could lose their family , their home , their job and their social contacts ...... ultimately becoming dependent upon what ever services the state has to offer . .... would it not be easier to provided adequate funding at the outset of a legal dispute rather than incur not only the material expense of incarceration and social services , but also the human cost of injustice and a life destroyed?

Any person who has been exposed, one way or another , to our justice system needs to speak out.about its flaws It is the only way to bring attention to the corrosive effect of its flaws .. This affects all of society not simply those who are or have been directly the justice system ..

I just came across this as I was doing some research for a project proposal, and it is a very helpful resource to link to. I have had the privilege of meeting so many amazing lawyers through Lawyering on the Margins, auspiced by Open Society, and I would be keen to be able to speak to more international lawyers about their legal services, as we do get a bit isolated sometimes here in Australia!

How do we join this conversation and follow progress made on this discussion? I'm interested in being invited to events/discussions the OSJI has on Access to Justice and measuring impact of Goal 16.

Natika Washington, VP Foundations & Corporate Sponsors, Prison Fellowship

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