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

Stop ‘Clapping with One Hand’ and Start Thinking Big


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 to the 2030 agenda, justice actors and funders at national and international level must reassess the ways in which justice systems can be transformed to put people at their center and close the ‘justice gap’. This week, delegates gather for Hague Justice Week, focusing on how to make an impact and increase access to justice. The starting point is to understand the scale of the problem we’re facing in delivering equal access to justice for all.

About this series:

This is the second 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 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, they look at how to scale-up cost-effective front-line justice services in lower-income countries.


We’re beginning to understand the scale of un-met justice needs

ODI research (soon to be published) has for the first time begun to reveal the scale of un-met justice needs in lower-income* countries. To do this, we have estimated the percentage of justice needs that are being met in a range of lower-income countries. As the table below shows, Sierra Leone is the stand-out example, with its mainly government funded Legal Aid Board handling an average of 117,400 cases a year and addressing over 50% of Sierra Leone’s need for legal advice and assistance.

Sierra Leone is the exception. Other lower-income countries we looked at are not reaching anything like this level of coverage. The next best is Rwanda, where civil society organizations together with Abunzi village mediation committees are addressing an estimated 17% of the country’s legal needs. In most of the lower-income countries considered, the coverage is under 5%. So, in a typical lower-income country over 95% of legal needs (which could include dealing with gender-based violence, human rights abuses, land disputes, and community disputes) are simply not being met.

Estimates of the extent to which need for legal advice and assistance is being met by the major community justice providers

Source: ODI analysis. Drawing on data from World Justice Project legal needs surveys and in the case of the Solomon Islands from a UNDP survey

ODI’s estimates were developed in collaboration with the World Justice Project and drew on data from legal needs surveys to estimate the percentage of country’s populations with a severe enough legal need to require legal advice and/or assistance each year. This figure was compared with data gathered by ODI on the number of cases handled each year by major community justice service providers in each country.

Our research was hampered by the fact that, as the World Justice Project’s legal needs survey atlas shows that very few legal needs surveys have been carried out in lower-income countries. The expense of these kind of surveys means that they tend to be undertaken in richer countries (including by bar associations and governments), with poorer countries reliant on donors’ willingness to fund this kind of data gathering Where there was no survey reported (in Malawi, Rwanda, Somalia, and Tajikistan) ODI based its analysis on surveys in comparator countries.

The scale of un-met justice needs implies the need for massive scaling-up of front-line justice services

Over the last 20–30 years huge progress has been made in improving access to services in lower-income countries — to primary health care, primary education, to clean water. Millions of people’s lives have been changed. But this hasn’t happened with justice services. For the aspiration of SDG16.3 — universal and equal access to justice — to be achieved, the justice sector needs to learn lessons from other sectors, and start to think big about how to scale-up front-line justice services to achieve nationwide coverage to address the huge numbers of currently un-met legal needs. As Sir Fazle Hasan Abed, founder of BRAC, eloquently put it: “[s]mall is beautiful, but scale is necessary.”

Strong examples exist of front-line, people-centered justice services in lower income countries with the potential to scale up

ODI’s forthcoming policy brief ‘Small is beautiful but scale is necessary’: front-line justice services in lower-income countries with the potential to scale-up provides 25 examples of front-line justice services from 12 lower-income countries (Bangladesh, Democratic Republic of Congo, Haiti, Kenya, Malawi, Rwanda, Sierra Leone, Solomon Islands, Somalia, South Sudan, Tajikistan, and Uganda) that are potentially cost-effective and capable of being scaled-up, so that they provide a national service across the lower-income country concerned. Examples include BRAC’s legal aid clinics in Bangladesh, the Paralegal Advisory Service Institute’s criminal justice defenders in Malawi, and Justice Centers in South Sudan.

The services address a range of legal needs including gender-based violence; land disputes; community disputes; and human rights abuses. Some are operating in fragile, conflict affected, and oppressive political contexts. All relate directly to SDG16.3 indicators on unsentenced detainees (SDG16.3.2) and dispute resolution (SDG16.3.3).

The cost per case achieved by government and civil society front-line justice service providers means that services have the potential to be scaled-up, so that they provide nationwide services to address legal needs. The binding constraint preventing them from doing so is lack of funding.

Clapping with one hand

Few justice service providers, or their funders considered in ODI’s research knew (and therefore presumably had limited concern about) the unit costs of the justice service they were providing or funding.

If the aim is to scale-up justice services in what is a resource-constrained environment, the services need to produce good results without costing a lot of money. A recent article in the Journal of Development Effectiveness makes the point that evaluating an initiative as successful simply by looking at its effectiveness (or impact) is like ‘clapping with one hand’, if consideration is not at the same time given to the initiative’s efficiency — the cost of achieving the impact. If you throw a lot of money at something, it shouldn’t be hard to make a difference, at least in the short-term. But if the aim is to be sustainable and to scale-up, providing the service cost-effectively is vital.

Think big

ODI’s research provides evidence of 25 initiatives from 12 countries that there are a range of front-line justice services in lower-income countries that are not clapping with one hand. They are not only providing front-line services to address justice needs, but are doing so in a way that is cost-effective, and so could be scaled-up affordably.

Despite the examples unearthed in ODI’s research, the more general failure of lower-income front-line justice service providers and their funders to focus on unit costs, may reflect a failure to think big and to have the vision of providing nationwide access to justice services to address un-met legal needs — in the same way that it has been possible over the last 20–30 years to provide nationwide primary health care, and access to education. The Legal Aid Board in Sierra Leone, which is addressing over half the country’s legal needs, is proof that it is possible to scale-up justice services in a low-income country with realistic unit costs. And the evidence ODI has gathered across 12 lower-income countries indicates that, when services have affordable and realistic unit costs, scaling them up is affordable too. We estimate that it would cost $249 million a year to provide universal access to community-based legal advice and assistance plus access to criminal justice defenders for all pre-trial detainees across all low-income countries. That is just 8% of the current aid budget.

* In this brief lower-income refers to countries that are classified by the World Bank as being either low-income or lower-middle income. Low-income economies are defined as those with a gross national income per person, of $1,085 or less in 2021; lower middle-income economies are those with a gross national income per person between $1,086 and $4,255. For more details see: https://datahelpdesk.worldbank.org/knowledgebase/articles/906519-world-bank-country-and-lending-groups