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JusLab: Making Open Justice Accessible to All in Buenos Aires, Argentina

JusLab: Justicia abierta accesible para todos en Buenos Aires, Argentina

This blog is part of a series from students of the Institut de Sciences Politiques de Paris who interviewed reformers working on initiatives recognized by the OGP Leaders Network. Read the series here

Civic trust is vital to states’ legitimacy. However, when it comes to issues of civil justice that require specialized knowledge of the law, how are citizens supposed to stay informed, let alone trust the decisions made?

In Buenos Aires, Argentina, an open justice initiative called JusLab aims to address the global lack of judicial transparency with a local, city-level approach. Open justice relies on civic engagement to properly function. This means that around the world, community members who participate should have not only some familiarity with government institutions but also an ability to analyze legal frameworks and decisions.

Nonetheless, if citizens lack the skills to properly participate with judicial systems, what impact can open justice have? Since it already appeals to those who have a background in policy or community engagement, could it further alienate the court system from everyday citizens?

Mariano Heller, from the Council of Magistrates of Buenos Aires, Joaquin Caprarulo, from the Civil Association for Equality and Justice, and their team of open justice advocates have been developing an answer. Both are law scholars from the University of Buenos Aires and recognize the need for judicial education as well as transparency. According to them, mistrust of the judiciary is widespread “mainly because of what people know about judicial power, which is not much and what they read in the papers, which is a lot.” The problem is not just a lack of transparency but more importantly, according to Heller, that “people in Buenos Aires don’t even know that we have a [dedicated] judicial branch”.

This has been a major area of concern as it suggests that only the most privileged Argentines have the means to constructively participate in government and legal processes. Citizens have therefore begun to believe the judiciary is “detached from everyday peoples’ problems, somehow elitist and privileged” according to Caprarulo. 

A lack of education around the judiciary would contradict the purposes of ‘transparency’ because citizens cannot make sense of the information that has been made public. So, the work of JusLab is two-fold, to educate the community about the judiciary and work to establish a transparent institution and develop trust in its authority.

The duo has their work cut out for them, they admitted, as “it’s not easy to explain what the judiciary of Buenos Aires does”. This is partly because the Buenos Aires judiciary shares its work with the federal court and the overlaps in the jurisdiction can get complicated. So JusLab starts early with its high school workshops on the country’s Constitution and its impact on the law. Using specialized board games, JusLab works to normalize judicial education for the next generation.

Then comes the task of making the justice system more transparent. Most judges are predictably reluctant to have some of their information publicly available such as their salaries and assets. Thus, while Juslab waits for more judges to change their outlook, they have asked judges to offer simple language explanations on judicial decisions in front of a camera, casting light on the inner workings of the court to all sectors and demographics of the public. JusLab has also encouraged partner courts in Buenos Aires to tweet their decisions in vernacular Spanish. Disseminating this content on social media reaches a broader audience and, importantly, puts a face to state authority.  

Still, not every judge is enthusiastic about this initiative, often preferring to let their judicial decisions speak for themselves and offer no further explanations. Heller frequently affirms that there is still work to do: “In this era, this [opacity] is no longer a possibility. We don’t need judges going on talk shows to make their decisions, but we have to find something in the middle”.

By increasing judicial education and transparency across all ages and communities in Buenos Aires and sharing its findings with other countries to help address this issue globally, JusLab has begun the great journey of rendering justice open to all.

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