Photo taken at the World Justice Forum 2019 Working Session: Building the Case: Why Business Needs to be Part of the Movement Towards Global Access to Justice
Photo taken at the World Justice Forum 2019 Working Session, Building the Case: Why Business Needs to be Part of the Movement Towards Global Access to Justice

Around the world, an estimated 5.1 billion people face unmet legal needs. The World Justice Project first revealed the massive scope of this challenge with the release of new household survey data from over 100 countries at the 2019 World Justice Forum.

At that same Forum, civil society and private sector leaders, policymakers, and donors from around the world dug into solutions and strategies to narrow the justice gap. Many of these efforts continue to bear  fruit, including the United Nations adopting a new access-to-justice indicator to measure progress toward the Sustainable Development Goals.

These important steps forward took flight at Forum working group sessions, where ambitious but practical plans are drawn to effect change. These multi-stakeholder meetings will again be a core offering at the upcoming World Justice Forum 2022: Building More Just Communities (May 30 - June 2). 

In addition to the Forum agenda’s cross-cutting plenary sessions, its World Justice Challenge competition, and its interactive Justice Expo, dozens of collaborative working sessions will create new connections and energy across specific issues within the 2022 Forum’s three interconnected themes: access to justice, anti-corruption and open government, and equal rights and nondiscrimination

To understand the political momentum that World Justice Forum working sessions can build, we caught up with two colleagues whose experience at the 2019 Forum helped forge a broad coalition of active allies around customary and informal justice (CIJ). Below, Dr. Lisa Denney, a research associate at Overseas Development Institute, and Jessica Hazelwood, a security and justice expert at Cordaid, reflect on the progress made and why it matters.  

Why is customary and informal justice (CIJ) an important issue of focus?

While precise data is lacking, it is widely recognized that the majority of people in many countries around the world seek redress for grievances and resolution of their disputes through a wide range of justice providers that are variously called informal, non-state, customary, etc. 

If SDG 16.3 is to deliver on its promise of improving access to justice for all by 2030, it is essential that the justice providers that people most frequently rely on are included in our conceptions of justice. Ignoring these providers fails to take account of the justice-seeking behavior of the majority of the world’s population – including, in particular, those in fragile and low-income countries who are in danger of being left behind. 

People-centered justice must start with understanding how people seek justice, not how institutions deliver it. This is a key focus of the Working Group on Customary and Informal Justice, which brings together more than 60 organizations to advocate for effective engagement with CIJ as part of efforts to deliver SDG16+. 

Can you share some examples of CIJ and the obstacles and opportunities this movement faces?  

Broadening our view of who counts as a justice provider reveals significant opportunity, as well as challenges. Often in relation to customary and informal justice, it is the challenges – such as weak human rights records – that are the primary focus. These challenges are real – some CIJ systems are indeed characterized by weak adherence to human rights. So too are many formal justice systems, which fail to deliver people-centered justice. The difference is that in relation to the formal justice system, a poor human rights record is often seen as a reason to engage to deliver change, not a reason to ignore them. The same should be true of CIJ systems.

Moreover, CIJ systems also offer incredible opportunities to share the load of delivering people-centered justice amongst established, often highly trusted and legitimate providers. This is especially crucial in places where trust in formal justice systems is lacking and will take a long time to (re)build. 

For instance, in Sierra Leone, the local courts have a long history of administering customary law work in collaboration with the formal courts that oversee the formal common law system. This ensures that more people are able to access justice that would otherwise be out of reach. In the Solomon Islands, community officers in remote villages act as liaisons between their communities and the local police, provincial justice system and government. They are assisting in providing better flows of communication and rebuilding trust to deliver improved services for Solomon Islanders. These productive examples have been possible where customary and informal justice providers have been recognized and engaged as partners in delivering people-centered justice. 

What happened at the World Justice Forum that helped create momentum around this issue?

At the World Justice Forum in 2019, Cordaid and ODI convened an expert group meeting on “diverse pathways to everyday justice,” focusing on how the most vulnerable groups and individual justice seekers navigate their options for justice in fragile contexts, with what outcomes, and what implications for international support to rule of law and access the justice. 

The meeting sought to share research and practical insights, identifying knowledge gaps and highlighting innovative approaches to expanding access to justice in contexts of pluralism; develop actionable recommendations for different policy, practice and activist networks on navigating the politics of justice in contexts of pluralism; and inform the development of the global policy framework for strengthening rule of law and access to justice, especially SDG16+. The 25 participants included representatives of multilateral and bilateral donors, researchers and academics, jurists, and civil society activists from 14 countries.

How did the Forum experience connect to the creation of the CIJ Working Group?

A key outcome of the expert group meeting was the recognition of common interests amongst the participants, especially a group of intergovernmental and civil society organizations delivering new research and policy guidance in 2019 and 2020. Dialogue fostered by the expert group meeting led directly to the formation of the Working Group by (initially) Cordaid, International Commission of Jurists, IDLO, ODI, Pathfinders, and the Van Vollenhoeven Institute at Leiden University. 

The collective presence at WJF of many different actors interested in the role of CIJ in achieving justice for all also began to build political momentum around the need for better engagement with CIJ actors in justice and rule of law programming, setting the stage for the December 2021 High-Level Dialogue on CIJ and SDG16+.

What has the group already accomplished and what are the longer-term goals?

The Working Group has played an important role in building consensus around the need for CIJ to be at the center of efforts to enhance access to justice and the rule of law in line with SDG16+. By bringing together more than 60 key justice stakeholders, ranging from grassroots women’s and indigenous peoples’ organizations to UN agencies and bilateral donors, it has established a platform and parameters for ensuring that the challenges and opportunities related to CIJ are at the top of the global justice agenda leading up to the 2nd SDG Summit in 2023. 

In the next two years, the Working Group will aim to build the evidence and data needed to make a robust case for recognizing the place of CIJ in delivering people-centered justice, and foster joint learning and policy dialogue to drive sustained engagement by donors and governments with the empirical reality of CIJ. 

CIJ will be on the agenda again at the 2022 World Justice Forum. What outcomes do you hope to see from the convening?

Recognition of the prevalence of customary and informal justice is not terribly new and many justice practitioners and researchers are well aware of this reality. But what remains striking is the degree to which the international justice community remains overwhelmingly focused on the institutional arrangements of the formal justice system, despite this awareness of CIJ. 

What we hope the 2022 World Justice Forum and the Working Group on CIJ will achieve is a greater engagement with CIJ issues as core work to delivering SDG 16.3 and people-centered justice. CIJ is not a sideline issue but centrally important to millions of peoples lives around the world. We hope that we can garner more support for efforts to put CIJ centrally on the agenda and stoke action to build the evidence base and sensitively engage with CIJ where appropriate.

Overall, how would you describe the role the World Justice Forum plays?

The World Justice Forum has a unique convening power in the global justice community, bringing together the most diverse and representative range of policymakers and practitioners. As the experience of the Working Group vividly demonstrates, the networking and coalition-building opportunities presented by this gathering can be transformative in effect.

World Justice Forum 2022: Building More Just Communities will take place May 30 - June 2, 2022 in The Hague, Netherlands, and online.

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