People-Centered Justice Matters: A Case Study in Argentina


By Gustavo Maurino, CIC-NYU Non-Resident Fellow

(Photo: Mariano Alonso)

Access to justice is in bad shape almost everywhere. The global justice gap is deep and wide: billons of people do not get the appropriate knowledge, services, support, and institutional resources to handle their everyday justice needs and achieve fair outcomes.

Formal justice institutions and services are often distant from people’s lives and their operations tend to be rigid and formulaic. The institutions themselves can be blind to this reality and the roles of justice actors are cemented as public authorities entrusted to preserve law and order under inelastic systems. They do not see it as their role to provide services or enable people to fully exercise their rights and entitlements under the protection of the law.

This needs to change. If the world is really going to build back better, people-centered justice must be at the heart of recovery efforts. Borrowing from Rebecca Sanderfur’s words, the justice gap is like the hidden part of the iceberg. Justice sector institutions and actors only see a very small part of the justice problem people face. They can only begin to address the justice gap, if it is properly identified, measured, and understood.

People-centered justice services

Large-scale initiatives to develop accessible, affordable, and adequate justice services are required to transform the experience of a justice problem into a journey of empowerment and citizenship. Such initiatives are necessary to achieve the SDGs and realize human rights. To make justice services people-centered, they need to be innovated and include a whole range of social services, support, and resources that enhance people’s capacity to handle their justice problems with autonomy and dignity. That is easier said than done, but there are already many good practices around the world to inspire us and to learn from.

The Access to Justice Centers in Argentina are a nation-wide network of justice services that have been evolving, growing, and innovating for more than a decade. They have proven to be sustainable, effective, and empowering policy in a middle-income country. As National Director of Access to Justice in Argentina, between 2016 and 2019 I was responsible for designing and implementing this large-scale public program to provide holistic primary access to justice services with a people-centered approach. I have documented my experiences in the new case study: Putting People at the Center: A case study on access to justice centers in Argentina.

Case study on people-centered justice

Reading a case study is too often like learning about a supposedly delicious dish that you will never have the chance to taste. There’s no recipe available, you don’t have any of the exotic ingredients required, nor are there any warnings about all the things that could go wrong if you dared to try it at home. I try to avoid that in this exercise.

Having been personally involved in the program, I strive to provide readers with a realistic taste of the program by identifying its main ingredients (its core goals, values, strategic principles, and operational tools). More importantly, I share the experience of policymaking from an internal perspective — through the steps we took in the four-year period when I was in charge of this program, just before the pandemic hit.

Access to Justice Centers, Argentina

In the case study, I provide an overview of the core constitutive elements that shaped the Access to Justice Centers model. I consider the external, political-institutional, and operational preconditions that should be taken into account. I identify and discuss ten key strategic choices that frame the operational identity of these programs and our decisions in the Argentine case.

I then present three key steps for getting it done, creating the conditions for service effectiveness. It starts with bridging the social gap to reach the communities of clients and to understand their justice needs by developing and internalizing a people-centered approach. This approach is applied at every level of the program and ultimately strengthens the tools and strategies for finding effective pathways to solve those justice needs.

People-centered access to justice is still a novel, growing field. It requires experimentation and innovation, as well as the collection of evidence to assess impact. Some of the pilot initiatives we implemented in Argentina, such as the hospital of rights and the campaign to provide people with identification documents, are also included in the case study.

Bridging the justice gap is imperative for our generation, and it should be within our reach. It demands bold political leadership and sustained investment in approaches that actually work in real life. With this case study, we hope to make a contribution to our collective commitment to make justice for all a living reality in our time.

I invite you to join me on this journey towards justice for all in Argentina.

(Photo: Mariano Alonso)