How Do We Measure Access to Justice? A Global Survey of Legal Needs Shows the Way

When was the last time you had a legal problem? Not just a problem in court, but an issue that involved recourse to law—perhaps a consumer problem, a traffic issue, or a family dispute? If your answer is within the last two years, you are not alone. A remarkable new survey by the World Justice Project (WJP) found that more than half of the people they interviewed, in 45 countries around the world, said the same.

The survey, Global Insights on Access to Justice, is the first of its kind to try to understand global access to civil, rather than criminal, justice. The survey covered 1,000 people in the three largest cities of the 45 countries involved, ranging from Canada and Mongolia to Nicaragua and Vietnam. Specific legal problems varied by country, but consumer and land disputes were among the most commonly reported, with an average incidence of 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

The survey is an important step in advancing global conversations around the critical role access to civil justice plays in securing inclusive, sustainable development. 

To combat poverty, policymakers and governments need to better understand civil justice problems, which disproportionally affect the poor and marginalized. There is currently no global policy framework for doing this for civil law, unlike in criminal law, where the right to counsel, for instance, is asserted in a range of international and national principles.

While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for access to justice for all by 2030, the two global measures agreed to so far maintain a global focus on criminal justice (crime-victim reporting rates and pretrial detention rates). The WJP data highlights the importance—and global feasibility—of legal needs–based survey measures that explore civil justice.  

The WJP data confirms widespread findings from national surveys: that when people are faced with civil justice problems, most do not turn to courts and lawyers for assistance or resolution. More than half of those who sought legal help or advice turned to a family member or friend, and less than one-third turned to a lawyer for assistance. When seeking resolution, 13 percent turned to a third-party institution or individual for resolution, with the rest either resolving their problem through negotiation, direct agreement, or not resolving the problem at all. More than one in six respondents reported that although their legal problem persists, they have given up all attempts to resolve it further.

More than half of those surveyed reported that it was difficult or nearly impossible to pay the costs incurred to resolve their legal problem. What’s more, among respondents whose legal problem was not yet settled, fewer than half reported that they were able to get all the expert help they wanted.

These issues have tangible developmental and social impacts. The WJP survey found that justice issues impact people’s financial, social, and physical well-being. Slightly more than one in four respondents reported having experienced a stress-related illness due to their legal problem. More than one in five respondents reported the loss of employment or need to relocate because of their legal problem.

WJP’s survey findings have important implications for global policy debates that extend well beyond access to justice practitioners:

  • We need to increase our focus on access to civil justice and integrate access to justice into other development and poverty debates. It is important to discuss the role of access to justice for ensuring decent work and economic growth, protecting land rights, and guaranteeing safe and adequate housing, among many other development priorities.
  • We must challenge the misconception that courts and lawyers are the solution to access-to-justice issues. We should support flexible systems of legal assistance that meet people where they are, to help secure outcomes that are more just. Nonlawyers and community-based paralegals can play a critical role.
  • We need to build on the WJP survey to develop more robust measures of civil justice. It is exciting to see national governments—in Colombia, South Africa, and Indonesia, among others—exploring how to incorporate legal needs survey measures into their development frameworks through concrete, contextual indicators. Understanding access to justice in a developmental paradigm can help to offer opportunities for new partnerships, financing models, and, ultimately, more effective programs.

If we are to build a more inclusive society, we need to better understand and account for the justice problems that people actually experience. This new data from WJP represents an important step in that direction. Members of the United Nations body evaluating indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals should take note.

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Completely agree. I am part of consultation on SDGs inter linkages,integrated and complementary nature. All SDGs are interconnected, integrated, complement each other and we myst seek sequencing of activities. The access to justice is critical for poverty reduction, peace, crime prevention, development and optimum use of human assets and resources. Access to justice and challenges to civil justice are real problems and we must find poverty justice solutions. Access to justice is a wider and is not limited to courts and lawyers-formal justice system. It includes community justice and informal justice system.We are focusing on criminal justice and very less on civil and commercial justice. Another is administrative justice. We are completely ignoring administrative justice. It si critical for rule of law.

If South Sudan, my country has taken part in this exercise, it would be the worst of all.

I am a former Economics teacher/professor that had my entire life and livelihood buried by a civil-employment discrimination legal issue. When no attorney would help me I filed pro se. The irony in that does not escape me, that a person teaching the cycle of economics is himself a bystander when his professional reputation is discarded due to employment discrimination. Access to an attorney not wanting a $10K retainer is apparently only available to the few that can afford it. What about the rest of us?? Where is our Due Process?? Unacceptable in my opinion. Access to civil legal recourse is tantamount to keeping many out of poverty...namely those trying to keep a job or find a new one. EEOC will gladly go through the motions of pretending to "investigate." They seem to have different rules for different individuals. I would greatly appreciate legal help in trying to get my life back.

The real threat are the Western interests and governments that fund monopolies like Dangote, actively distabilize and overthrow thriving African states, help known corrupt African government and political figures bank stolen funds, then turn around with a saintly smile as if intending to help.
We have seen this too many times to have faith in any initiative driven by these vested interests.

In Papua New Guinea, it's the rich that use the Courts as they can afford the exorbitant legal costs. The majority who can't afford it just seal their lips and accept the injustice. Much worse is the fact that the Police who are suppose to protect you are corrupt and if you don't have the money to pay, you end up on the wrong side of the law and came be victimized even though your innocent. Then, if you do have money to afford a lawsuit against police and win - you have to wait on a corrupt govt to pay you and may have to fork out money again to get your claim against the State paid.

I am a frustrated Para Legal Consultant attempting to underwrite hefty legal costs to pursue human and land rights issues and trying to do it the legal way can be a very frustrating long process but haven't given up.

If your project can help Papua New Guinea - will greatly appreciate it as have a long list of issues to tackle and feel like am David against Goliath.

Do you operate in Srilanka? I would like to join your work for justice for all communities. I am a social service volunteer and have also personally been a victim I would like to get updates and would also like to know if I could be in your training program.I also teach skills to small businesses. On design.waste and traveled to 12 countries. But I find that there is a bigger need to be involved in the justice for all. We strugle in our part of the world because we are women and the justice system is in shambles. We need to unite globally and be there localy for support of the silenced voices.

The key is to empower local populace to know the law and their rights through legal empowerment drives and training local community paralegals who become permanent first legal resource persons in advising their peers and communities on legal and Human Rights challenges they encounter on a day to day basis. From my experience as a lawyer and Human rights activist I have seen through our community clinical legal programs (Human Rights First Rwanda Association, www.rightsrwanda,com) which we have initiated in Rural areas in Rwanda that work on community legal clinics using University students and Paralegals working for the betterment of the people at grassroots level. The populace have known their rights and are able to challenge administrative issues including illegal expropriation, unlawful eviction and labour issues. Armed with knowledge of the law and rights the local populace can defend their land which is their primary source of income and also can negotiate contracts pertaining to sell of land to investors at a good rate hence fighting poverty.

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