Access to justice for all citizens has long been recognized as a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, and effective and equitable development. Its centrality has recently been highlighted in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16), which calls for all societies to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels” (United Nations, 2016). The United Nations Development Programme (2004) has even described access to justice as a basic human right.
Access to justice is described broadly as the ability of citizens to “seek and obtain remedies” (American Bar Association, 2012, i) and to “prevent the abuse of their rights and obtain remedies when such rights are abused” (United States Agency for International Development, 2010, 12). Providing access to justice requires meeting several conditions. It requires a legal framework that protects citizens’ rights and that is known and comprehensible to ordinary people. It requires that court costs are reasonable and that legal counsel is both available and affordable. And it requires that citizens are confident that laws will be fairly and effectively applied. In short, it requires the existence of a remedy, citizens with the legal empowerment and capacity to seek a remedy, and a court system with the capacity and will to provide an effective remedy (International Commission of Jurists, 2009).
These conditions are often evaluated through expert assessments. However, the perspectives of ordinary citizens – including both the public at large and actual users of the legal system – can shed critical light on the extent to which people enjoy access to justice. Do ordinary citizens use the legal system to resolve disputes, or do they avoid it? Do they have confidence in court decisions, and in their own ability to secure just outcomes? Can they obtain the legal advice they need, and afford to pursue a case? And when they do go to court, what are their experiences? Are women, the poor, or marginalized groups treated differently than men or wealthy elites?
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