Strategies to Increase Justice: The Goldmine of Individual Cases


By Maaike de Langen

Maaike de Langen is head of research for the Task Force on Justice, an initiative of CIC’s Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies that aims to help turn the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets into reality. Drawing on her experience as the head of strategy and policy for the National ombudsman of the Netherlands, she argues that individual cases are a goldmine of information for those who want justice for all.

© World Bank Photo Collection/CC by 2.0

The justice ‘how’

Politicians campaign on it, international organizations pour money into it, people aspire to it: justice.

Now that justice has rightly earned its place at the heart of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, it is time to look beyond the ‘why’ and focus on the ‘how’.

Three strategies help us find answers to the ‘how’ question:

1. Understand people’s legal needs.

2. Empower people and solve their legal problems.

3. Learn from people’s experiences as they navigate justice systems.

Strategy one: understand legal needs

We must ask people what problems they encounter in their daily lives and what legal problems or barriers stop them from obtaining justice or accessing services and opportunities.

Victimization surveys, which ask people about their experience of crime, and legal needs surveys, which ask them about a range of civil and criminal problems, have been increasingly used over the past 25 years.

When done well, they provide more than aggregate data and enable national reforms to be driven not by the ideology of justice in the abstract, but by knowledge of justice needs and outcomes.

Strategy two: empower people to solve legal problems

If we understand needs, we can get better at solving legal problems.

Traditionally, the justice sector invests in institutions, buildings and training, but lacks a clear understanding of how it expects this investment to translate into increased justice.

A problem-solving approach reverses this logic.

Legal empowerment is about finding solutions that are realistic and affordable, starting at the local level, using knowledge of the law in combination with the basic tools of listening and mediation skills.

Civil society, human rights defenders, and other activists are at the heart of the legal empowerment movement, but governments must also play a role.

Providing legal aid and spreading legal information as well as ensuring the proper functioning of both informal justice institutions and the formal justice system are also responsibilities of the state.

Argentina’s justice centers, which can be found in its poorest communities demonstrate how a country can actively empower its most disadvantaged people.

Strategy three: learn from people’s experiences as they navigate justice systems

When you start solving legal problems, you also start gathering information. Individual cases provide a goldmine of information that can help deliver better justice.

Even the most basic hand-written register — such as the carefully maintained log that I encountered years ago at a legal clinic in Bamako — offers rich insights into justice in people’s lives.

These individual cases deepen our understanding of both the most common and the most serious legal problems. They can provide the stories and qualitative evidence that allow us to understand why and where injustice persists in specific contexts, and how people go about solving their legal problems.

They help us to map people’s justice journeys, informing strategies to improve the accessibility and quality of justice services they receive.

And they force us to focus on prevention, moving from individual cases to the systemic changes that allow injustices to be tackled at scale.

Feedback loops in the justice sector

We often contrast top-down and bottom-up legal reform. This strategy is about linking the two.

Few countries have yet established a feedback loop from individual cases to broader learning, structural improvement and innovation in the justice sector.

Judges decide on cases, but seldom translate what they learn into legislation or reforms. Ministries of justice are not normally confronted with individual cases. They look at the system as a whole.

Lawyers, legal aid providers, community paralegals, and social workers may do a better job. They have the information from cases and know how to work the system. They use this knowledge for strategic litigation, to advocate for structural reforms, and for more people-friendly justice systems.

But unlike in other sectors, such as health, the justice sector lacks a culture of turning evidence into action. We need to get better at organizing and analyzing information from individual cases and turning this evidence into proposals and actions for structural legal change.

Learning from the ombudsman

A photo I took during a visit to the ombudsman of Indonesia

Ombudsman institutes provide a model for how to do this. Their primary task is to handle complaints. But each complaint adds to the bigger picture of how the system works for or against people.

An ombudsman can analyze a series of cases and make recommendations to reform legislation and regulations, or to improve implementation.

They might identify an archetypical case and bring together stakeholders from all sectors to solve it, including political leaders and senior civil servants.

Or they can escalate an individual case, creating media attention and raising awareness among parliamentarians in ways that addresses that case but also prevents similar cases from recurring.

For example, when I worked for the National ombudsman in the Netherlands, we investigated the impact of the digitization of tax returns. We found that the autonomy of older people was being directly impacted, as they were no longer able to handle their own finances. We called on parliament and the Tax Administration to allow exceptions in these cases.

Working for justice

As the movement for justice builds, the urgency of the ‘how’ question grows.

We know we must put people at the center, understand their legal needs and empower people to resolve problems close to home.

But we also need to organize action around what we learn from people’s justice journeys, using their perspective to resolve problems and improve the justice services that people receive.

Learning from the goldmine of individual cases will allow us to make structural improvements towards access to justice for all as envisioned in SDG 16.3.

Maaike de Langen is Head of Research for the Task Force on Justice, an initiative of the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies that aims to help turn the ambition of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) targets into reality. Follow her on Twitter: @MaaikedeLangen