Exploring community-based solutions to global access to justice problems


By Trevor C.W. Farrow, Ab Currie, and Lisa Moore

The Justice for All report highlights the importance of resolving people’s justice problems and improving their justice journeys. Community-based justice organizations may offer better justice journeys since they operate in local communities and are seen as trusted sources of justice-related information and help. Research on what works and how, and comparing experiences of community-based justice in different countries, is critical to build the evidence base that we need to transform our justice systems.

This guest blog in our Justice for All series, describes research conducted to compare the access to justice costs, benefits and opportunities for providing and scaling community-based justice services in Sierra Leone, Kenya, South Africa and Canada. It is written by Trevor C.W. Farrow, Ab Currie, and Lisa Moore of the Canadian Forum on Civil Justice at the occasion of the 2022 World Justice Forum.

The theme of this week’s World Justice Forum 2022 — “Building More Just Communities” — is the focus of forthcoming access to justice research from the Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) project, an international research collaboration involving partners in Kenya, Sierra Leone, South Africa and Canada.

Photo: Kindel Media via Pexels

Global Access to Justice Crisis

Everyday legal problems are everywhere. An estimated two-thirds of the world’s population lack meaningful access to justice. For example, over a two year period, approximately 50% of people in Sierra Leone experience a civil justice problem, 53% of people in Kenya experience a legal problem, and 12% of the population in South Africa experience one or more justiciable problems or disputes. In Canada, studies estimate that approximately 20%-50% of every adult Canadian will experience a range of justice problems over a three year period. In the US, those numbers climb to 74% of low-income households experiencing at least one civil legal problem over a one-year period, with 92% of low-income civil legal needs receiving no or inadequate legal help.

Community-Based Justice

This global access to justice crisis is driving shared efforts to achieve the goal of equal access to justice by 2030. Given the complexity of social, political, and economic contexts, shared problems do not always lend themselves to one-size-fits-all solutions. However, emerging from the global access to justice crisis is a growing opportunity to collaboratively explore new initiatives and innovative ways of thinking.

One specific area of focus is community-based justice. As various commentaries from Lisa Moore, Ab Currie, CLEO, the CCJD and others have explored, organizations operating in local communities are seen as trusted sources of justice-related information and help. Community-based justice work is often done by paid and volunteer staff in not-for-profit organizations, as well as other government and social services, to provide community members with various sources of help for their everyday legal needs. Community-based justice initiatives are typically embedded in a community, involve staff and volunteers from a community, provide holistic services for a community — which have often been developed by a community.

Community-based justice initiatives do not replace state-based justice services. However, given the experiences of many people who struggle to access, or who lack faith and trust in state-based or more formal services, community-based justice initiatives are often able to address individual problems with tailored services and referrals, while at the same identifying systemic gaps and collective needs.

Community-Based Justice Research (CBJR) Project

The CBJR project is designed to compare the access to justice costs, benefits, and opportunities for providing and scaling community-based justice services in Sierra Leone, Kenya, South Africa, and Canada. The three African-based CBJR research initiatives were conducted by the Katiba Institute in Kenya, the Center for Alternative Policy Research and Innovation (CAPRI) in Sierra Leone, and the Centre for Community Justice & Development (CCJD) in South Africa. The Canadian Forum on Civil Justice (CFCJ) is facilitating links between the studies and connecting them to the global access to justice conversation, with particular attention to community-based justice and the business case for investment. The CBJR project is mainly funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC).

The three African-based CBJR studies, in various ways, focus on paralegal delivery of community-based services. The ways in which paralegal services operate in each of the studies illustrate important elements of community-based, people-centered justice, including problem resolution, relationship building, community well-being, and resource mobilization. By understanding how local mechanisms facilitate fair and accessible problem-resolution, the CBJR project seeks to identify learnings from across the three African-based studies that might offer guidance on scaling community-based justice services for broader national, regional, and global impact. Some early discussions and findings from the studies in Kenya and Sierra Leone have been reported, and further reports from all of the CBJR partners are forthcoming.

A core objective of the CBJR project is to carry out a cost-benefit analysis of community-based justice services. The cost-benefit analyses carried out in the CBJR studies make a strong case for paralegal community-based justice initiatives as cost-effective, viable, and sustainable services. Recognizing the importance of measurement and data, this cost-benefit approach will also contribute to the growing business case demonstrating the positive impacts of investing in justice.

In terms of methodologies, the CBJR project involves large-scale research undertakings, employing multiple and mixed methods for extensive data collection and analysis. The various methodologies used by the three studies — with extensive and layered quantitative and qualitative approaches, including during the COVID-19 pandemic — provide useful lessons for future access to justice research projects.


Growing out of the UN’s SDG 16 and other global access to justice initiatives (including by the OECD, Pathfinders, World Bank, Open Society, World Justice Project, HiiL and others), shared access to justice goals include empowering people and communities to build a more just, equitable, and inclusive world.

The CBJR project, including its forthcoming reports, will provide widely-applicable new thinking and findings in the context of community-based justice, paralegal services, cost-benefit analyses, and access to justice research methodologies. Overall, there are valuable lessons to be learned from these three exciting new African-based studies, as part of a collaborative international research partnership, that will no doubt inspire new ways of thinking about measuring and promoting expansive and meaningful forms of people-centered access to justice.

Trevor C.W. Farrow is Professor and Associate Dean of Research & Institutional Relations, Osgoode Hall Law School and Chair, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice. Ab Currie serves as Senior Research Fellow, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice. Lisa Moore is the Director, Canadian Forum on Civil Justice.