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Growing Momentum for Opening Government with Access to Justice and Legal Empowerment

Peter Chapman |

Access to justice and legal empowerment are increasingly viewed as essential elements of open government. They’re vital components for participation and inclusion. The Tbilisi Global Summit included enthusiasm for justice and open government not present in previous meetings; multiple sessions explored the links between justice and open government. At the Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting in early November, there were numerous justice-focused events including a ministerial roundtable on the agenda.

Several new justice and open government resources now exist to help countries better incorporate access to justice and legal empowerment in their Action Plans (APs). Alongside the Tbilisi summit, OGP released an Opening Justice working paper, which included contributions from the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Government of Argentina and Georgetown University. A ministerial panel in Tbilisi spoke to the multitude of ways that justice is contributing to opening government across sectors, from health to labor. The Government of Argentina recently released an exciting new volume (in Spanish) bringing together multiple perspectives on open justice. OGP’s new flagship Open Government Report explores of new frontiers for justice commitments, including effective policies and meaningful data.

This momentum for justice in OGP is new but justice focused commitments, broadly defined, have existed for years. Indeed, research shows that the number of justice commitments have grown significantly since 2011. In 2017 more than 10% of all AP commitments were related to justice, including around judicial transparency, opening justice data and combatting violence against women.

Within this increase, APs have started to incorporate community-based legal empowerment commitments in addition to the more frequent commitments around justice data. New commitments on access to justice and legal empowerment are being explored in numerous countries in 2018 including: Moldova, Macedonia, Mongolia, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.

Civil society and government representatives from each of these countries participated in a day long justice workshop in Tbilisi. We discussed how AP commitments can drive critical legal empowerment issues across three domains: justice policies, financing and measurement. This blog summarizes some of the key learnings from these sessions.

Inclusive Justice Policies

  • Expanding access to civil justice: OGP members should prioritize policies that expand access to civil justice—including those related to health, employment, consumer issues, land and property and social protection. These problems are frequent, more likely to impact poor and marginalized communities and are fundamental for advancing open government. They’re essential for inclusion. In South Africa, for example, the current AP incorporated a commitment to institutionalize community based legal resources called Community Advisory Offices as part of the wider justice network.
  • Embracing non-lawyer justice models: Countries are using the AP process to clarify and reform policy around non lawyer roles in advancing access to justice and open government. Community paralegals and non-lawyers help provide practical information and assistance at a community level and are vital to practically securing open government. In the section of its 2018 draft AP (in Moldovan), related to innovation in the public sector, Moldova prioritizes increasing access to justice through the extension of a paralegal network, including revising eligibility criteria and increasing state support for training and certification.
  • Improving Transparency and Access to Information: Numerous APs have included commitments seeking to expand information about legal process. Argentina’s 3rd AP includes a host of significant commitments by the judiciary, the executive and civil society to strengthen the transparency of judicial institutions and processes.
  • Protecting and deepening civil society partnerships: The OGP is also playing an important role in protecting and advancing civic space. This vital work significantly impacts upon the efficacy of independent legal empowerment organizations.

Diversifying Financing for Access to Justice and Legal Empowerment

  • Public Financing and Sectoral Partnerships: OGP action plans are exploring new routes to integrate legal empowerment across government. In Macedonia’s final 2018 AP, the Ministry of Labor and Social Policy is leading on a commitment to reduce the scope of unmet legal needs of citizens from poor and marginalized groups. The Ministry will support four independent centers for access to justice targeting marginalized groups and provide broad training to ministry staff on legal empowerment and access to justice.
  • Subnational and Local Government Funding: APs can also drive new forms of collaboration across levels of government. United States’ Third AP incorporated the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable’s work to improve federal coordination and identify new sectoral financing opportunities for access to justice. In 2018, Indonesia is exploring ways to incorporate access to civil justice into their OGP local plans.

Measuring Access to Justice and Legal Empowerment

  • Measurement to Expand Access to Civil Justice: Commitment 13 of the Paris Declaration prioritizes improving access to justice through a focus on measurement and data collection. Too few governments undertake regular surveys to understand the legal needs that people experience in daily lives, where people go for assistance and the ways in which these issues get addressed, if at all. The State of Open Government Report draft similarly highlights how better civil justice data is a tool for opening government for poor and marginalized communities.
  • Increasing Participation and Monitoring for Justice Accountability: In addition to expanding transparency of the justice system, the OGP platform has also been used to strengthen monitoring and participation. Liberia’s 2nd AP, for example, includes a focus on enhancing citizen monitoring of the justice system to advance participation and build trust.

Exciting work is underway, particularly with new focused legal empowerment commitments emerging in the 2018 cycle. As we look to 2019—when Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals will be reviewed for the first time at the High Level Political Forum—the OGP community will need to closely monitor implementation of existing commitments while also generating new momentum for more.

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