Funding access to justice, a 'cross-cutting enabler of the SDGs'

A signboard seen outside the premises of Supreme Court in New Delhi, India. Photo by: REUTERS / Anushree Fadnavis

SAN FRANCISCO — Layers of red bauxite dust, the result of aluminum mining, settled over a village in Gujarat, India. Women living there said it was in their clothes, on their food, and — they suspected — the cause of a dozen kidney stone cases in children.

With the support of a community paralegal, they learned the bauxite processing facility in their backyard was violating environmental regulations and took up their case with the government’s pollution control board, which ultimately shut the site down.

“You need to figure out how to democratize the law process.”

— Zaza Namoradze, director, Open Society Justice Initiative's Berlin office

Vivek Maru, CEO at Namati, a nonprofit social enterprise focused on legal empowerment, visited the village in December 2018. “We can feed our kids now without the bauxite masala on top,” Maru said, quoting one of the women he spoke with on his visit. “I don't feel as afraid as I used to now that I know there is law on my side.”

Maru, whose vision is to put the power of law in the hands of the people, shared this story at a recent event at Stanford University that brought funders and others together to discuss how to support people-centered justice models.

With the adoption of Sustainable Development Goal 16, funders and implementers focused on access to justice were thrilled to see the issue become part of the international development agenda. But funding has not followed, and in fact — based on numbers from a new report by the Task Force on Justice — the global justice system fails more people now than it did before.

At the High-level Political Forum in New York beginning this week, member states will report back for the first time on the progress they have made on SDG 16, while funders and implementers will discuss ways to finance access to justice in the next decade. One way to address this is with a new, large-scale global fund — an idea that several foundations are currently exploring.

Building the case for investment

On Monday, Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies released a new report outlining ways leaders can help resolve justice problems, prevent injustices from occurring, and use justice systems to create opportunities.

Up from the 4 billion figure determined by the Commission on Legal Empowerment for the Poor in 2008, 5.1 billion people are currently deprived of justice, the report explains. They fall into at least one of three groups. 4.5 billion are excluded from the opportunities the law provides, 1.5 billion have a justice problem they cannot solve, and 253 million live in extreme conditions of injustice without meaningful legal protections.

The report frames these problems not just in terms of justice, but also in terms of economics. For example, it points out that every $1 invested in access to justice leads to $16 in benefits due to reduced conflict risk. But David Steven, director of Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, said it would be too expensive to fill the justice gap using courts, judges, and lawyers.

“Most justice problems are not ending up in courts, and they can’t be,” he said. “You need to take justice much closer to people.”

Steven explained that the justice sector might be able to look to public health as a model; just as community health workers are playing an increasingly important role in access to care, so too can paralegals help to handle justice outside the courts.  

“By moving from hospital-centric model that would only deliver health to the few, to a distributed community model, that can take us to a path of universal health coverage,” Steven said. “Similarly, we could move from justice for the few to justice for all.”

There is already strong evidence, and more being generated, that empowering people to use knowledge of the law to improve their own situation works, said Zaza Namoradze, director at the Open Society Justice Initiative's Berlin office, in Germany.

“You need to figure out how to democratize the law process,” he said, adding that Namati, which works with networks of grassroots legal advocates around the world, is one example.

Mary Robinson, former U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights and chair of the Elders, wants to “see investment in innovation, especially initiatives that empower citizens and are led by civil society organizations,” she told Devex via email.

Robinson, who was a commissioner on the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor and has seen the rise from 4 to 5.1 billion in the decade since, said courts and lawyers are essential.

“But it takes many more layers of actors — such as well-trained community paralegals and empowered citizens — to deliver justice to everyone in a nimble and cost-effective way,” she said.

Both Namoradze and Robinson urged that justice funding cannot be a priority of the justice sector alone, but instead needs to be incorporated into other sector strategies such as health, environmental sustainability, and gender equality.

Exploring new ways to fill the gap

Last July, the Overseas Development Institute published a paper suggesting what steps might be taken to explore whether a large scale global fund to support access to justice would make sense.

Inspired in part by this paper, funders including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Charles Stewart Mott Foundation, and the Open Society Justice Initiative are starting initial conversations about what an intermediary fund for access to justice might look like and planning to hire a consultant to explore this further.

“We are relatively large foundations in terms of the money that we give, but we have limited staff size, and most paralegal groups or legal empowerment groups have small budgets, are scattered, and work on the subnational level,” said David Sasaki, program officer in global development and population at the Hewlett Foundation.

While most grants from the Hewlett Foundation are between $500,000 and $2 million, in April, the Silicon Valley-based funder made a $6 million grant to Namati, which supported active clients in five countries last year and has plans to expand.

But with an intermediary fund, the Hewlett Foundation could pool its resources together with other funders — and bring new funders on board — in order to finance community justice work at the global scale.

Philanthropy has played and will continue to play an important role in meeting people’s justice needs in part because many governments lack incentives to provide their citizens with quality justice services.

“It holds public and private power accountable in the way that they work,” Lorenzo Wakefield, a program officer responsible for grantmaking in the Access to Justice program area at the Mott Foundation, told Devex. “So there’s been a reluctance to actually support this kind of work.”

Plus, complete government control of the justice system would be a conflict of interest, so there will always be a role for civil society to play.

The funders discussing the intermediary fund are looking at other models they might learn from, like the International Trans Fund to support the trans movement, and they acknowledge there will be challenges in structuring a global fund for access to justice such as making sure all voices are heard.

Steven of Pathfinders said the high-level meeting in New York is an opportunity to bring a range of stakeholders including funders together around the ambition of access to justice for all.

The forum will leave 80 days until the SDG Summit, a gathering of leaders taking place alongside the United Nations General Assembly in September, where the goal is to generate commitments to accelerate progress over the next four years. By 2023, at the next HLPF meeting under the auspices of UNGA, the goal is for access to justice to be on a new upward trajectory.

The conversation about the intermediary fund is not the only conversation underway about new models to support access to justice, said Adrian Di Giovanni, senior program specialist for law and development at the International Development Research Center.

He also mentioned private financing models, blended finance, or bonds. But an intermediary fund would be a welcome response to the increasing calls for investments in access to justice, Sonia Park, justice financing adviser at Namati, told Devex via email.

“In particular, a pooled fund designed with frontline legal empowerment efforts in mind can catalyze more innovation and enable continuous learning to deliver justice to everyone,” she wrote.

This step would also demonstrate how justice is a cross-cutting enabler of the SDGs, Park explained.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.