From new technologies for legal initiatives to specific recommendations on how to avoid political influence over the judiciary and financing reform, panelists from civil society groups, governments and judiciaries across the world discussed solutions to Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 16.3 – the target seeking to ensure access to justice and effective rule of law.
The session took place on the sidelines of the Global Conference on SDG 16, co-organized by IDLO and UN DESA with the Government of Italy from May 27 – 29.
Focusing on four aspects specifically challenging to SDG16.3 – inequality, judicial independence, public trust and funding – the participants made targeted recommendations for how to reach results.
Tackling entrenched inequalities
Addressing the challenge of discrimination and the growing awareness of the harmful impact inequality Sultana Kamal, former Executive Director of Ain o Salish Kendra in Bangladesh, said that the first step is to acknowledge that there are many layers of inequality.
“Poverty is a multi-dimensional aspect where people are excluded for many reasons such as gender, ethnicity. Increasingly the poor are being left behind.”
To tackle the problem, she said the government of Bangladesh is taking a holistic approach to working with inequality. Specific focus lies on improving data collection to identify systematic discrimination and other problems.
Particular attention must also be given to women and children who are often excluded from accessing justice, said Beatrice Duncan, policy advisor at UN Women. This can be done, she added, by expanding legal aid and systems using paralegals to provide better coverage and more access.
Independence of the judiciary is under threat in a number of countries where politicians are attempting to gain influence. Kenyan Chief Justice David Maraga said the key to maintaining an independent judiciary was to stand firm and exercise the constitutional powers of the judiciary, despite political threats.
“The executive branches of government don’t always want to accept that there are constitutional limitations, and because the judiciary has the power to say what is within the constitution and what is not. My recommendation is to give an independent body the power to appoint judges.”
Building trust in institutions
Sharing the example of Uganda, where the government has formed a sector wide coordination body to help improve trust in institutions, Alfonso Owiny-Dolo, Deputy Chief Justice in Uganda, said one way to build trust is to make sure government institutions coordinate efforts.
Corruption also erodes confidence in the judiciary, but the public perception of corruption is often just as important as the reality, said Anna Giudice, Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice Officer at UNODC.
“Judges individually and collectively must strive to maintain confidence in the judicial system," stated Giudice. "Communication is important because of the weight of what a judge or prosecutor at senior level says. Their communication needs must be successful in order to build trust.”
Financing the judiciary and using new technology
Several panelists also mentioned the difficulty in financing judicial systems and reform. “We need to budget for justice. If justice is not reflected in national budgets we will not be able to ensure equal access," said Ms. Duncan.
Marcos Bonturi, Director for Public Governance at OECD, said the amount needed to improve national judiciaries is often less than the cost of not funding justice. “Unmet legal needs can cost countries as much as 3 per cent of GDP. And that is a steady cost. If you look at cost of inequality and other issues the figure is likely a lot higher.”
He suggested countries improve their data collection to help show the link between instability, trust and lack of investment. “We should mobilize as a community to have more countries conduct these surveys so we can have more evidence of the importance of investing in public access to justice,” he continued.
But improving access to justice doesn’t always need to cost a lot more money. Attorney Gerald Abila, founder of Barefoot Law in Uganda, said innovative use of technology could improve access to justice and reduce the pressure on the courts. Barefoot Law provides legal advice to Ugandans over the phone with the aim of solving conflicts without increasing the burden on an already strained justice system.
“We provide access to legal advice to solve conflicts early. The formal justice system should be looked at as a last resort. My recommendation calls for us to put innovation and creative thinking as a cornerstone to meet SDG 16.”