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An Open Government Needs Access to Justice

Stacey Cram and Peter Chapman |

Without effective access to justice and legal empowerment, no country can realize meaningful transparency, accountability and citizen participation.  Increasingly, Open Government Partnership (OGP) members are acknowledging the fundamental links between access to justice and open government, and are using OGP to drive vital justice reforms. We call on government reformers and civil society in OGP countries to consider access to justice and legal empowerment commitments in their next National Action Plans.

Liberia’s second National Action Plan, for example, includes a focus on enhancing citizen monitoring of the justice system to advance participation and build trust.  Colombia’s second action plan commits the government to expanding access to online information on how to access justice institutions.  Members of the Global Legal Empowerment Network are using OGP to advance justice priorities in their countries.  In South Africa, for example, the recent action plan seeks to contribute to the development and sustainability of the paralegal movement by ensuring that community based paralegals are trained and equipped to effectively respond to the needs of marginalized groups.  

The broader OGP community has taken note.  During the 4th Open Government Summit in Paris in December 2016, more than 20 contributors from governments, civil society organizations and multilateral organizations endorsed commitment 13 of the Paris Declaration, prioritizing improved access to justice through a focus on measurement and data collection.  To enable the Paris Declaration to deliver on its commitment, we need to ensure that access to justice is effectively integrated into National Action Plans, and provide greater opportunities for learning and exchange on access to justice in the OGP community.  The Global Legal Empowerment Network facilitates an open group for individuals and organizations interested in advancing access to justice in the OGP.  We hope these efforts will advance member state progress towards access to justice for all, as envisioned by target 16.3 of the Sustainable Development Goals.   

To achieve open government, people must be empowered with the ability to respond to the injustices that affect their daily lives. This means they must be guaranteed access to information about laws and regulations; but it also means they must be able to obtain effective assistance whenever discrimination, corruption, violence, or lack of resources prevents them from addressing grievances or obtaining remedies. People must have the chance to take part in processes for setting institutional agendas and holding institutions accountable for systemic failures.  OGP countries increasingly realize such meaningful engagement can require support.

Legal empowerment efforts—including those deploying a frontline of community paralegals or “grassroots legal advocates,” supported by a corps of public interest lawyers—have proven successful in advancing these interests. Community paralegals specialize in a holistic and practical approach to legal services.  They help secure concrete solutions to individual disputes and community-wide problems, traverse a range of institutions, motivate citizens to actively participate in governance, and help guard against the closing of civil society spaces.  These processes and outcomes are all at the core of open government.

National Action Plans provide important opportunities for governments, civil society and partners to strengthen open government through securing and measuring access to justice. Several dimensions of access to justice are of particular relevance to OGP National Action Plan formulation:

  • Information about laws, regulations and policies should be accessible and governments should work with civil society to ensure that people are aware of their rights.  National Action Plans could commit to government and civil society partnerships to create mechanisms that ensure the regular preparation and dissemination of aids, guides and charters to enable people to better engage with government processes and understand and use laws relevant to them.  

  • Strengthening access to justice requires a policy environment which supports access to community paralegals and non-lawyers to help people and communities secure practical justice solutions for their everyday problems.  National Action Plans could provide a clear legislative basis for the contributions of community paralegals and non-lawyers and ensure that their services are independent with clear standards and effective oversight.

  • Understanding the scope and nature of people’s legal needs, as well as how they attempt to resolve legal issues in practice, is essential in strengthening efforts to promote access to justice and open government.  A deeper understanding of legal needs and justice outcomes can help governments better design and target policies.  Building on the commitment in the Paris Declaration, action plans could incorporate commitments for regular measurement of civil justice from the perspective of people as opposed to institutions.

  • Lack of sustainable and predictable revenue streams is a significant constraint in ensuring that civil society programs can assist in guaranteeing effective access to justice for all.  Action plans could suggest ways to deliver a predictable mechanism to allocate public funds to civil society paralegal services, while respecting paralegals’ independence.  Open government is premised on multiple government agencies working together with civil society to innovate on sharing and allocating public funding for civil society efforts.

As governments and civil society organizations work to develop shared commitments for their 2017 National Action Plans, they should consider integrating concrete commitments on legal empowerment and access to justice.  Legal empowerment organizations should be further integrated into the OGP community, so that they can help develop effective access to justice commitments grounded in the daily realities of the communities they serve. South Africa and the Philippines have extended their outreach to such organizations through the consultation phase and have important justice commitments as a result.  Such approaches are vital in guaranteeing that open government principles exist not only in law and policy, but also in the day-to-day experiences of everyday people.  We hope you will join us in working towards integrating access to justice and legal empowerment into National Action Plans.