Strengthening access to justice is one of three pressing rule of law issues the World Justice Project (WJP) is working to advance in the Asia Pacific region. This theme together with judicial independence and building healthy information ecosystems were the focus of the December 8-9 Asia Pacific Justice Forum convened by WJP and co-hosted by Kemitraan and the Australia Indonesia Partnership for Justice 2.
By Fiona Dempsey, Engagement Intern, World Justice Project
Ensuring that everyone has equal access to resolution of their legal problems should be an important goal for countries around the world. Strong and accessible civil justice systems allow citizens to resolve grievances effectively without corruption, discrimination, or unnecessary expenses.
Unfortunately, last year, the effectiveness of civil justice systems fell in over three-fifths of countries around the world, according to the 2022 WJP Rule of Law Index. That included countries across the Asia Pacific region, where 62% of states suffered setbacks in civil justice.
In December, the Asia Pacific Justice Forum brought experts from across the region together to discuss justice barriers and share ways in which they are working to create change.
Poverty, discomfort, language barriers, and poor access to technology, are among the issues that prevent people from seeking justice, according to speakers in the forum’s Interactive Session on Access to Justice for Minorities. Fear and a lack of understanding of the judicial process also have a significant impact on the effectiveness of the justice system, said Dio Ashar Wicaksana, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the Indonesia Judicial Research Society.
In Indonesia, 38% of those with legal problems do not take action, often for fear of their problems becoming more complicated, according to the 2019 Indonesian Access to Justice Index. Of those who do seek justice, over 60% do so through informal mechanisms. Panelists explained that for many women, the choice to use an informal mechanism is rooted in feelings of discomfort with the formal legal system.
Speakers also identified poverty as a significant barrier for ensuring access to justice. In Nepal, the government is using public interest and safety laws to extend control over citizens in lower castes, according to Ajay Shankar Jha, executive director of the Public Defenders Society.
“The Nepal justice system is criminalizing poverty,” he said.
Poverty is also among the specific challenges that women with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities face, said Doreen Buettner, an access to justice specialist at UN Women Bangkok. “These women do not have the financial means to engage with the justice system,” she said, underscoring that an accessible justice system must work for everyone, not just those with high incomes. Additionally, she said, women with intellectual or psychosocial disabilities are often ignored and left out of legal decisions, creating a knowledge gap about their legal needs.
Discrimination is also a major concern when it comes to criminal justice in the region. In Nepal, said Shankar Jha, those who pay a price include members of marginalized castes, religions, Indigenous communities, and other ethnic groups.
“People are being locked up not for what they have done, but for who they are,” he said. Another issue of regional concern is law enforcement not taking violence against women seriously, according to Angkhana Neelapaijit, a member of the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances and a former Thai national human rights commissioner. Judicial harassment, particularly towards women, prevents them from utilizing the court system, she said. When issues of gender-based violence are dismissed by law enforcement, or are met with further harassment, other women can get discouraged from coming forward to seek justice.
Speakers agree that working together with like-minded partners is critically effective in improving access to justice. Naosuke Fujita of the Lawyers Network for LGBT and Allies in Japan, explained how his organization has been working with LGBTQ activists, allies, politicians, and corporations for years to move Japan closer to guaranteeing marriage equality.
Participants also presented “Best Practices and Innovations,” which emphasized the need for people-centered justice. Solutions to meeting the needs of people, not institutions, included surveys and digital tools.
Veronica Rios of LexisNexis shared how the company has used its expertise to assist the International Bar Association with their EyeWitness app. By allowing users to record instances of war crimes and guaranteeing the video is not tampered with, these videos can be admissible in court.
Learn more about the Asia Pacific Justice Forum and watch the full session on access to justice for minorities below: