What will it take to achieve equal access to justice for all?

Get Serious About Justice Finance and Fund Front-line Justice Services


By Clare Manuel and Marcus Manuel, Senior Research Fellows, ODI, London.

The Justice for All report shows that 5.1 billion people lack meaningful access to justice. As we approach the halfway mark of the 2030 Agenda, justice actors and funders at national and international levels must reassess the ways in which justice systems can be transformed to put people at the center and close the ‘justice gap’.

While the SDG16 community gathers for the SDG16 Rome conference and wraps up its discussion to feed into the upcoming UN processes, including the UNGA high-level debate on access to justice in June, the HLPF in July, and the SDG Summit in September, it must address the issue of financing equal access to justice for all. Any serious discussion on accelerating the progress towards SDG16.3 will have to work out what to finance, where, and how.

About this series:

This is the first in a series of four blogs on financing justice by Clare Manuel and Marcus Manuel, Senior Research Associates at ODI. Throughout this series the authors address the question: “what will it take to achieve equal access to justice for all?” and draw on ODI’s pioneering research on justice financing: “Taking people-centred justice to scale: Investing in what works to deliver SDG 16.3 in lower-income countries,” supported by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and funded by the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. In the piece below, the authors provide an overview of justice financing — highlighting the divide between higher- and lower-income countries.

UN Photo/Iason Foounten

The justice financing divide

The situation for financing equal access to justice for all is very different between higher-income countries on the one hand, and lower-income countries on the other — meaning that different approaches will be needed to find the money to achieve the goal.

ODI analysis highlights a justice financing divide between lower- and higher-income countries. As the two right-hand columns in the graph below show, rich countries can easily afford to pay for at least a basic justice system for all, including nationwide legal advice and assistance and accessible local systems for resolving disputes. In fact, OECD countries can afford to pay for these kind of front-line people-centered justice services three times over. Any failure to provide services to address people’s everyday justice problems in these contexts can be attributed to the way justice budgets are designed and how the money is allocated.

But the situation is very different in lower-income countries. These countries have a justice financing gap — see the two left-hand columns in the graph below, which fail to reach the 100% line. Even if lower-income countries maximized their tax take, and then allocated the same proportion of their budget to justice as OECD countries do, they would be unable to fund even a basic justice system: the poorest (low-income) countries are unable to afford even half the costs. Ironically, these countries are actually “over-funding” justice from their own limited resources, allocating on average 72% more from their domestic budgets to the justice sector than OECD countries do. Given competing demands from other sectors (health, education, etc.) it is questionable how sustainable these generous domestic allocations of funds to the justice sector are.

Source: ODI estimates based on ODI/IMF dataset. LIC=low-income countries; LMIC=lower middle-income countries; UMIC = upper middle-income countries; OECD DAC = members of the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development, Development Assistance Committee

Declining aid for justice

At the midway point of the SDGs, things are going backwards on justice financing for lower-income countries. Rather than scaling-up to meet the justice financing gap which prevents lower-income countries from having even a basic justice system, aid to justice is a declining priority for donors. Aid for justice is falling: by 27% over the past 10 years, even including aid to human rights and violence against women and girls. Further, aid for justice declined as a proportion of overall aid from nearly 3% in 2012, to under 1.5% in 2021. (Updates to ODI’s aid analysis are soon to be published, building on previous analysis here, here and here.)

Source: OECD Creditor Reporting System database

Most financing from the declining justice aid pot is given to middle-income countries, such as Colombia and Mexico for geo-political reasons. And even when justice aid does make it to lower-income countries, donor programming priorities mean that funds tend not to target front-line justice services. USAID gives the most aid to justice, and encouragingly, their new Rule of Law Policy promises a paradigm shift towards people-centered justice, and for communities’ and people’s justice needs (rather than the needs of justice institutions) to be at the center of interventions.

New research reveals the level of unmet justice needs in lower-income countries

With few signs of donors stepping up to meet the justice financing gap in low-income countries, soon-to- be-published ODI research reveals for the first time the extent to which the justice needs of individuals and communities in lower-income countries are not being met. A comparison of data from legal needs surveys, with new data from front-line justice service providers, reveals that in lower-income countries typically less than 10% of legal needs are being met, and that legal coverage in most lower-income countries researched is under 5%. Imagine if only 10% of health or education needs were being met. The failure to meet the legals needs of 90% of the population persists despite justice being identified as one of the top priorities for both poor people and leaders in lower-income countries.

Re-prioritizing how justice aid is spent could address the justice financing gap and unmet legal needs in lower-income countries

Soon-to-be-published ODI research from lower-income countries highlights a range of front-line, people-centered justice services providing legal advice, assistance, and dispute resolution which have the potential to be scaled-up nationwide. The services (in Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Tajikistan, and Uganda) address a range of legal needs including gender-based violence; land disputes; community disputes; and human rights abuses. Service providers (in some cases civil society, in others government) are not only addressing people’s justice needs, but are doing so cost-effectively — achieving realistic and sustainable unit costs. Many are doing so in highly fragile, conflict-affected, and oppressive political contexts. The binding constraint to scaling up their operations is lack of funding.

Funding these kinds of cost-effective front-line services across all low-income countries should be affordable, if existing resources were re-prioritized. ODI costings show that providing funding across all low-income countries for (1) universal access to community-based legal advice and assistance, and (2) criminal justice defenders for all pre-trail detainees — would cost $249 million a year. This would be 8% of current total aid to justice.

Two different kinds of conversations

In higher-income countries there may be conversations to be had with governments about how much of their domestic justice budget is targeted at front-line people-centered services, such as neighborhood courts currently being piloted in the Netherlands, highlighted by Prime Minister Mark Rutte at the recent Summit for Democracy. In higher-income countries, re-prioritization of domestic resources will be key to achieving equal access to people-centered justice.

The situation is different in lower-income countries. Here there may be scope for re-prioritizing domestic justice resources towards front-line people-centered services. But this is grossly insufficient to address the justice financing gap these countries are facing. As with health, education, and other services, lower-income countries need external assistance to scale-up justice services, and provide universal access. If lower-income countries are not to be excluded from SDG16.3, the key conversation needs to be with donors — about where justice aid is going, to which countries, and what it’s funding; and, critically, about donors’ appetite for re-prioritizing justice aid towards front-line, people-centered services.