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How Access to Justice Helps in the Fight Against Poverty

People seen sitting on the ground between two police officers
Police watch striking workers in Marikana, South Africa, on September 5, 2012. © Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty

American social justice activist Bryan Stevenson tells us that the opposite of poverty is not wealth, but justice. This would not come as a surprise for the families of the 34 workers killed at the Marikana platinum mine in South Africa in 2012, who have spent years struggling for safe and adequate housing as well as compensation for their family members’ deaths. Such an argument would also not be novel for the Sawhoyamaxa community in Paraguay, who have struggled for decades for recognition of their ancestral lands, either.

For most governments around the world, however, justice and poverty are treated as distinct concepts. Poverty is addressed through higher incomes; justice, on the other hand, is the domain of judges and lawyers.

Parliaments and executives keep the court system at arm’s length, protected from the influences of other branches of government. Lawyers act as protectors of legal principles, not agents for development. Parliaments, local governments, and executive agencies, meanwhile, address poverty and marginalization through designated antipoverty and national development plans. National and local agencies focus on social protection, public benefits, and entrepreneurship. Poverty is something that can be addressed through social protection payments, skills training, and access to credit.

To meaningfully address both justice and poverty, we need to bridge this divide. Court systems and legal advocates should be insulated from political influence, but we need to better account for how legal needs and poverty interact. Governments need to plan for justice in their budgets and in how they assess progress towards poverty-reduction goals.

In the United States, the Justice in Government Project at American University is helping lessons learned during the Obama Administration to take root at the state level. Under President Obama, the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable at the Department of Justice identified ways for civil legal assistance providers to combat poverty and help underserved populations. (Author's update: on February 1, the New York Times reported that the Trump Administration has essentially closed the Department of Justice office largely responsible for launching the LAIR initiative).  

Free legal advice might keep a family in its home, or help someone keep a single financial problem from becoming a crisis. The interagency roundtable strengthened federal partnerships, helped establish referral pathways across agencies, and identified new funding for civil legal assistance from federal agencies working on issues of labor, veterans, and health.

Despite federal setbacks, the Justice in Government Project is now working with U.S. state legislatures, agencies, and legal service providers to remove obstacles to employment, address the legal needs of victims of crime, improve health outcomes and reduce health care costs, and protect consumers. Each of these populations benefit from legal assistance.

Numerous programs and studies demonstrate that integrating legal and health services lowers health care costs and improves well-being. Improvements are seen in the general population as well as among specific marginalized groups, such as Native Americans. These programs are breaking down legal silos and exploring how justice partnerships can improve outcomes.

In parallel to emerging models of collaboration and financing, planning and statistical agencies are beginning to measure civil justice as a core element of national development.

In late 2017, for example, the government of Colombia took a step towards strengthening the linkages between justice and antipoverty programs by releasing its inaugural Effective Access to Justice Index (Índice de Acceso Efectivo a la Justicia). This index relies on data generated by a collaboration between the Department of National Planning and National Statistical Office, and builds off legal-needs methodologies tested by the Colombian civil society organization Dejustica.

These two government departments developed and integrated an assessment of whether justice needs were being met into the yearly National Life Quality Survey (Encuesta de Calidad de Vida) in 2016. Quality of Life Surveys traditionally explore dimensions of well-being—including living conditions, access to public services, and food security. The justice element supplements this by exploring what legal problems the Colombian population has, where it seeks advice, and how it tries to resolve its problems.

By treating legal problems and access to justice (which includes the courts, administrative offices, and community institutions) as core social issues, the Colombian government and civil society organizations should be better able to respond to common and significant legal problems. As legal-needs survey data shows, legal problems are not evenly distributed across population groups and often have major social impacts. Critically, much of Colombia’s survey data is online [in Spanish] and available for analysis and use by civil society and academia to understand impacts and drive innovation.

These are small steps—but they’re important. Hopefully, they’re also a sign of the path ahead. The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals included access to justice as a priority in the global development framework; if governments and civil society groups are going to respond to this mandate, we must continue to explore how financing and measures of civil justice can be more closely integrated with development. This effort will set us on the path towards development that is more inclusive, more widely shared, and ultimately more just.

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