Access to Justice

Last Updated: December 30, 2008

The field of access to justice has been attracting increasing attention in the last decade, in post-conflict peacebuilding in particular. Today, the goal of access to justice is adopted across the political and ideological spectrum and considered as an integral element of any peace-building and long-term development process after conflict. Among other elements, it embodies concepts of redress and justice which are central to peace, trust and confidence-building.
The first section defines the notion of access to justice as well as a number of expressions and related terms which are also commonly used in relation to access to justice issues.
The second section elaborates on the origins and functions of access to justice, in particular in relation to peacebuilding processes. One way to understand access to justice is to consider the different stages of a justice process, from recognition of a grievance to a tangible remedy that respect human rights standards. Each stage of this process is associated with distinct challenges or barriers to accessible justice and calls for specific actions to overcome them. While barriers to justice exist in many societies, both developed and low-income, they are especially pervasive in post-conflict contexts. Barriers to justice can be grouped into two categories: operational and structural. The growing popularity of access to justice is partly the result of changes in the field of international development, giving place to a human rights-based understanding of this imperative. Access to justice is also perceived as a bottom-up approach to justice reform and reconstruction (as well as the reform of the state at large) which have received greater attention in post-conflict settings. It also plays an important role in furthering transitional justice and contributing to the recognition and protection of human rights.  As an integral element of any peace-building and long-term development process after conflict, it also plays an important role in preventing conflict, consolidating peace, and protecting the most vulnerable groups. Last but not least, access to just in any society is inherently a political endeavor.
The following section presents the main components of access to justice programs, as well as the main areas of activities and actors that undertake them. Those activities concern: legal protection, legal awareness, legal aid and counsel, adjudication, enforcement, oversight (both by civil society and parliament), supporting activities (in particular research), and initiatives aiming at making the formal justice system more accessible.
The fourth section presents a summary of some of the key debates and implementation challenges discussed by academics and practitioners in relation to access to justice. The main debates relate to two major sets of issues: top-down versus bottom-up approach to justice reform; "procedural" versus "substantive" access to justice. The main implementation challenges refer to the material constraints in which those efforts generally have to be undertaken and the need for prioritization; the need for holistic or system-wide approaches to access to justice; the importance of a "do no harm" approach; the difficulty to reach the goal of capacity-building and sustainability; a relatively persistent knowledge deficit.
The final section turns to three case studies, giving concrete elements about how these issues have been addressed in specific contexts, namely: Guatemala, Indonesia and Sierra Leone.

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