People-centred justice action by Commonwealth Law Ministers

By Sam Muller and Theresa Smout (HiiL)

The Secretary General of the Commonwealth Secretariat, Rt. Hon. Baroness Scotland, made it simple in her opening words: we need justice transformation. Her words were heeded by the Commonwealth Law Ministers who met in Mauritius on 23, 24 and 25 November. The Outcome Document of the meeting reiterates the importance of access to justice, people-centred justice, the importance of working on the basis of data and opening up to innovation.


A foundation of six

The Commonwealth has a good track record on access to justice. In 2019 the Law Ministers Meeting adopted the Colombo Declaration on Equal Access to Justice. In it, they commit to six things:

  1. Putting outcomes at the centre: access to justice is not just about “access to dispute resolution mechanisms” but more about “equality of outcomes”.
  2. Facilitate data collection on legal needs and the experience of people on their justice journeys.
  3. Use “people-friendly approaches”, including technology.
  4. Use the leverage of the Commonwealth governance structures at the both political and technical level to promote access to justice and rule of law.
  5. Use the Commonwealth to share experiences and best practice.
  6. Continue to provide “collective leadership”  to ensure that the access to justice and rule of law goals of SDG16 are delivered.


Taking people-centred justice seriously

The Outcome Document adopted in Mauritius flows directly from this. The Ministers, supported by the Secretariat, are taking the shift to people-centred justice programming seriously. Some of the key elements of the action plan include the development of an access to justice toolkit and a small claims court app, a Commonwealth legal knowledge exchange portal, the implementation of people-centred justice projects, the development of the toolkit for justice ministers who have just been appointed to help them through the first 100 days, an integrated family court project and model contracts in investment, energy and extractives.

What we see is that people-centred programming is given concrete hands and feet. The Ministers recognise the need for a shift to a more evidence-based, data-driven way of working. One practical example was the request to the Secretariat to work on best practices to deal with the challenge of Child, Early and Forced Marriage. They also recognise that improvement strategies should encompass both formal and informal modes of prevention and dispute resolution. Some of the gamechangers to more and better justice delivery that HiiL’s research has also found are referenced as examples to follow: community justice centres, user-friendly contracts, one-stop shop tribunals, and online legal information services and advice.

Inspired by a presentation by Richard Susskind the Ministers embraced the value that innovation and technology can bring to justice resolution processes. The 100 Day Toolkit can be used to include what is being learned about people-centred justice programming in this toolkit, this way of working can spread and develop. The Justice Leaders will be able to offer their experience to this.



Keeping it going

To keep the pace going, the Ministers also set up an advisory Law Ministers Action Group (LMAG) “to provide guidance and advice to the Secretary-General (…) on strategies to strengthen the rule of law and equal access to justice” as outlined in SDG16 and the Colombo Declaration on Equal Access to Justice. This aligns the working level senior advisers, the ministers and the Secretariat.

This was a significant meeting, which has clearly taken the commitment of the Commonwealth to SDG16 and the target of justice for all a step further. It went beyond proclaiming principles only. We were honoured to have been asked to address the meeting and look forward to the next meeting, which Tanzania will host.


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