The world needs a great legal reset to address post-Covid challenges

Patricia Scotland
By Patricia Scotland

The secretary-general of the Commonwealth of Nations, she is the first woman to hold the post. Previously, she was Her Majesty’s Attorney General in the UK (the first woman to hold the post) and served as a minister in Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s governments.

Posted on Tuesday, 29 November 2022 13:25

Women carrying their children lineup to receive vegetables from the Jan Hofmeyer community services in the Vrededorp neighborhood of Johannesburg Thursday, April 30, 2020. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, access to justice for two-thirds of humanity, particularly women and the poor, was a mountain to climb. As the virus struck, the world was thrown into chaos and any chance of reaching that summit was swiftly stolen, vanishing like the Himalayan peaks amidst a storm. The devastating impact of Covid-19 has forced us to confront a system stretched beyond its limits and left us with unmanageable backlogs.

We cannot ignore the facts: the world is in a justice crisis. Regardless of our country’s wealth or geography, we need an urgent and transformative overhaul of the justice system to deliver for all or see justice denied for far too many.

As we emerge from the pandemic and confront a different set of challenges in the form of conflict, climate change and the cost-of-living crisis, we have a unique opportunity to put equitable access to justice high on the development agenda. We must all do this, not only as our obligation to uphold the rule of law under international agreements but because it is also fundamental to the well-being of our people, democracy and economy.

‘Further injustice’

We know depriving people of justice results in further injustice, with people denied their rights, unable to defend themselves in areas as essential as housing and employment as well as prevented from holding the power to account. Unresolved legal disputes can spiral into new conflicts, creating a feedback loop that drains resources and puts further pressure on already strained systems.

While the cost of unresolved legal disputes is not widely measured, a study estimates that just three types of justice problems – lost income, damaged health and the cost of seeking redress – cost OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries between 0.5% and 3% of their gross domestic product every year.

At the same time, studies show that spending on people-centred justice generates a high return on investment. For instance, every pound invested in legal aid for housing cases in Scotland delivers £11 ($13.20) in return. At a time when economic slowdown and debt burdens are making it harder for governments to spend on social services, the benefits of investing in justice – both in terms of the money it saves and generates – make a compelling economic case.

‘Consider investing in access to justice’

As a first step, we need to consider investing in access to justice, [which is] just as crucial as spending on other social services, such as health, given the payoff in reduced costs, for instance, in hospitalisations. Here, the international community can also support by reforming measures of eligibility for development finance and by expanding a debt relief scheme, particularly for countries grappling with excessive loans or climate-related disasters, freeing up new resources to spend on justice as well as rebuilding efforts.

For this reason, the Commonwealth’s focus has been on supporting its 56 member countries, one-third of humanity, in their efforts to achieve universal access to justice through innovative policies in line with their commitments to the Sustainable Development Goal 16. As part of this, Commonwealth attorney generals and law ministers gathered in Mauritius last week to discuss how to build back a people-centred justice system that equitably meets the legal needs of our 2.6 billion citizens.

Given the crisis we all face we cannot go back to business as usual, relying on our costly and ineffective existing processes and procedures.

High on their agenda are the transnational task forces for implementing a Commonwealth-wide action plan on access to justice, adopted by Commonwealth leaders at their biennial meeting in Rwanda this June. Once set up, each task force will lead on one of the five strategic interventions that focus on promoting data, evidence-based practices, pioneering justice services, an enabling environment and a people-centred justice movement. Their work will offer valuable insights into successful interventions that could be replicated in other parts of the Commonwealth, ultimately saving up money and time.

It’s not ‘business as usual’

Given the crisis we all face we cannot go back to business as usual, relying on our costly and ineffective existing processes and procedures. We need to draw from the positive lessons learned, especially those emerging from the increased use of technology during the pandemic and utilise them to shape our approach going forward. For this reason, the Commonwealth has presented a new paper at the meeting on how sophisticated artificial technology can support judicial decisions in criminal courts to improve access to justice while maintaining the same quality.

The challenge before us is tough, but, as a Commonwealth family, with a successful track record of leadership on pressing global issues, we recognise that our chances of success are far greater if we work together by marshalling our collective expertise and experience. With the resources we need and a renewed political resolve, we know we can make equitable access to justice a reality for everyone in our Commonwealth – and no longer delay the justice that we all deserve.

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