Justice for All and the Economic Crisis


The world faces its biggest economic crisis in almost 100 years. COVID-19’s economic impacts are sure to last longer than the public health emergency and will trigger a massive increase in justice problems. Unemployment is rising, people are increasingly threatened by eviction, many companies are fighting to stave off bankruptcy.

In our briefing on Justice for All and the Economic Crisis we present strategies for how justice systems can help, not hinder economic recovery, and how justice leaders can take action to reshape justice systems and support more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient patterns of growth.

By Maaike de Langen, Program Lead, Pathfinders for Peaceful Just and Inclusive Societies (NYU-CIC); David Steven, Senior Fellow, Center on International Cooperation (NYU-CIC); Sam Muller, Chief Executive Officer, HiiL; Mark Weston, independent writer, researcher and consultant

The projections are bleak. The World Bank predicts the worst global depression since the 1930s. The International Labour Organisation estimates that 1.25 billion jobs are at risk. In Latin America alone, 2.7 million companies are likely to close, many of them small and medium enterprises. At least 170 countries are expected to see their economies shrink.

Even before the pandemic, 1.5 billion people were unable to resolve their everyday justice problems, as the Task Force on Justice revealed in last year’s Justice for All report. And more than 4.5 billion people are excluded from the opportunities the law provides, as a lack of legal identity, labor contracts, or proof of housing and land tenure prevents them from prospering in the modern economy.

The pandemic has already widened this justice gap, and ministers of justice and other justice leaders are viewing the gathering storm with growing trepidation. In a survey of leaders from twenty countries, employment problems, debt, and bankruptcy are expected to drive large increases in demand for justice as the pandemic continues to unfold.

Justice systems are struggling. Lockdowns and social distancing requirements have dramatically increased backlogs. Frontline justice workers have been infected. The design and regulation of public health measures have massively increased the justice workload. Abuses by justice actors have triggered protests across the world, most visibly in the growing movement to ensure that Black Lives Matter.

(For more on these challenges, see our first briefing Justice for All and the Public Health Emergency.)

The economic crisis will substantially increase the pressure. As employment contracts are terminated and businesses go bankrupt, the demand for legal assistance will mushroom. People are dying, and that means more inheritance disputes. Pressures on families will lead to more divorces with significant economic consequences for parents and children.

Photocarioca / Shutterstock.com

Some of the risks are still largely hidden. As people are confined to their homes during lockdowns or curfews, they are more exposed to online scams. Workers are more vulnerable to exploitation by their employers — including failures to protect them from COVID-19 — as they cling to jobs and try to ride out the crisis.

The economic response to the pandemic brings its own justice problems. Emergency support programs must reach those who need them most and not be captured by corrupt and criminal actors. Equitable and just provision of public services has never been more greatly needed, especially for groups that were already discriminated against both by governments and justice institutions.

In short, the sector faces a triple crunch. Greater demand for justice. Shrinking public resources. And justice systems debilitated by a pandemic that is far from having run its course. So today, we are proud to publish a collaborative briefing — Justice for All and the Economic Crisis — which aims to help justice leaders grapple with pressures from three sides.

We propose seven strategies:

  • Anticipate demand — use existing and new data to understand the changing demand for justice and use triage to channel people to the most appropriate service
  • Invest in personal contact — reach out to people by phone or digitally to reduce workloads and deliver fairer outcomes.
  • Address problem clusters — tackle multiple problems at once to stop disputes from escalating and break vicious cycles.
  • Prioritize non-court solutions — use mediation and other dispute resolution mechanisms reducing pressure on formal institutions.
  • Focus on prevention — use legal empowerment, online services, ombuds’ institutes and other non-court services to nip disputes in the bud and address the structural roots of economic injustices.
  • Avoid making justice problems worse — modify or scrap laws and procedures that make disputes worse and exacerbate injustice.
  • Use justice to rebuild economies — put justice systems at the heart of ensuring fair distribution of recovery packages and use them to give marginalized people greater opportunities for economic participation.

In responding to the pandemic, justice leaders do not need to go it alone. By collaborating with justice innovators — with sectors including housing and employment, with trade unions and business associations, and with the multiplicity of community-based, often-informal justice providers — they can find ways to open the sector up to innovation, so that new and more effective solutions can be found that also reduce the burden on the formal system.

The pandemic, the economic misery that it is creating and the inequalities that it has exposed, have fed into a demand for just societies in which people have a fair chance in the economy.

It is time for a commitment to justice in its broadest sense — as a system that protects those who need it most, that promotes fairness in the economy, and that strengthens the bonds which bring us together as a society.

The briefing is available HERE.