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Closing the global justice gap with transformation labs

Mille Bojer
September, 2019

Learn about Reos Partners' contribution to new approaches needed to close the gap in global access to justice.

This article was co-written by Mille Bojer and Sam Muller, the founding director of HiiL.


New approaches are needed to close the gap in global access to justice. This is something that global leaders committed to by adopting Agenda 2030—in particular Sustainable Development Goal 16.3: “Equal access to justice for all.” HiiL and Reos Partners have developed justice transformation labs to fill this need. These labs help justice leaders develop evidence-based justice innovation strategies and empowered coalitions to implement them.

A landmark report

In July 2019, a landmark report was published by The Task Force on Justice, convened by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just, and Inclusive Societies. The report points out that today’s justice systems are not helping people to solve their justice problems. At any one time, 1.5 billion people can’t resolve their justice problems, 4.5 billion people live excluded from the law, and 253 million live in conditions of extreme injustice. Half of women find it pointless to report a case of sexual harassment.

Globally, this access to justice gap affects more people than diseases like malaria and tuberculosis. It has a high impact on individual lives and on society: from seriously damaged relationships and business conflicts to violence. It impacts our essential needs to be safe, to have a family, to earn a living, to plan, to be healthy, and to be a true community.

The transformation needed

The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) has found that business-as-usual approaches—including more courts, more lawyers, and more litigation—cannot provide enough capacity to reach SDG target 16.3.

Providing equal access to justice for all will require new leadership, innovation, resources, and overall a transformation to a people-centred approach.

As outlined in the Justice Task Force report, a people-centred approach to justice:

  • Starts with an understanding of people’s justice needs and aims to solve the justice problems that matter most to them.
  • Empowers people to seek solutions and provides them with quality services throughout their justice journey.
  • Builds a justice system that is open and inclusive and works in collaboration with other sectors such as health, education, housing, and employment.
  • Aims to tackle root causes and prevent injustices from occurring, not just to solve them when they do.
  • Creates opportunities for people to participate fully.
  • Reaches the furthest behind (women, children, minorities, migrants, people with disabilities, LGBTI+)

But how do we do this?

The Justice Transformation Lab

HiiL and Reos Partners have partnered to offer an innovative strategy to deepen and accelerate the transformation to people-centered justice, called justice transformation labs. Justice transformation labs take a systemic, collaborative, and experimental approach to justice, combining evidence-based and stakeholder-driven approaches. These labs can be implemented at country level, in partnership with leading national stakeholders, or at sub-national or multi-local levels.

Justice transformation is needed across the world, in the “Global North” as well as in the “Global South,” in situations of peace and stability as well as in situations of fragility and protracted conflict. Transformation labs are relevant across all these different contexts, though they look different and need to be adapted to each situation.

The key elements of transformation labs include:

1. Knowledge gathering on justice needs, trends, and existing solutions

The Justice Task Force report emphasizes the need to nurture a culture and build a system that can learn from data about justice problems and evidence about what works, while eliciting and responding to feedback from users and being accountable for quality and fairness.

In the justice transformation lab, data is collected early in the process about the everyday justice problems that matter most to people. This data offers a crucial evidence base to orient strategy development, decision-making, and prioritization. In addition, knowledge is gathered on the justice landscape, trends, and existing solutions, as well as mapping other justice innovation/transformation processes underway that the lab needs to complement, build on, and feed into. Local stakeholders are engaged in data collection in a participatory manner, so they feel more ownership of the results and are able to support the process as it evolves.

2. Supporting capacities of justice leaders

The Justice Task Force report emphasizes the need to increase justice leadership by building skills in active listening, conflict management, data gathering, and the ability to think and plan collectively.

Participating in the justice transformation lab is inevitably a leadership development journey. Justice leadership is not defined only by Ministers and Attorneys-general, but something that is present and shared across the entire justice workforce. Stakeholders in the process build their understanding of evidence-based and people-centred approaches, while expanding their capacity for creativity, innovation, dialogue, collaboration, and conflict transformation moving beyond adversarial dynamics. Further, they are the owners of all the outputs and the agents of the transformation.

3. Multi-stakeholder engagement and ownership

The Justice Task Force report emphasizes the importance of a diverse and inclusive justice system that draws on the strengths of a broadly defined justice “workforce,” including justice leaders, justice professionals, other formal service providers, informal or volunteer justice actors, justice innovators and defenders, and other sectors.

While there is no single institution that leads and coordinates this entire multi-faceted justice workforce, justice transformation labs offer a space where the necessary diversity of actors can come together to learn, familiarize themselves with the data, set goals, design and pilot innovative strategies, and build collaborative partnerships. The diversity of participation in the labs is not only sectoral and gender-balanced, but also multi-level, bringing community-level stakeholders together with national level actors. These diverse groups of stakeholders, entitled “stakeholder teams” come together, not in standalone events, but rather in a series of workshops over time, structured with a participative methodology and guided by experienced facilitators.

4. A strategic approach

A central message of the Justice Task Force report is that justice providers need to move from firefighting to a model where they develop strategies to achieve long-term goals.

Justice transformation labs offer stakeholders an opportunity to build on evidence to set strategic goals and to work with foresight methods and system mapping to build a long-term, systemic perspective. This builds their capacity for taking a strategic and cross-sectoral approach, enables them to consider root causes and key leverage points, and helps them to think and plan collaboratively. The strategic outputs of the labs (systems maps, goals, scenarios and/or pathways and prototypes) feed into strategies and plans of individual institutions as well as into the design of feasible, collaborative, and scalable innovation initiatives.

5. Support and incubation of innovations

Unlocking the transformative power of innovation is one of the key levers of Justice Reform presented in the Justice Task Force Report. The report points out that for countries to benefit from justice innovation they need to make space for it to happen, and that the best innovations draw on a wide range of disciplines and perspectives—including the perspective of users themselves.

Innovation is encouraged in justice transformation labs, in multiple ways. They offer a structured method for multi-stakeholder innovation teams, focused on specific goals and targets, to iteratively design and prototype innovations in collaboration with justice users. They bring these innovators together with influencers who can support the scaling and institutionalization of the innovations. In addition, they scout for, resource, and accelerate innovations that are already happening.

6. Building networks

The Justice Task Force report points out that international and national networks accelerate the dissemination of new ideas and approaches and that a new culture of collaboration is needed.

Justice transformation labs develop relationships across traditional silos, leading to the development of justice leadership communities, and accelerating the sharing of ideas and approaches. Stakeholders from different sectors and backgrounds, with different networks and spheres of influence, get to know each other closely over the course of working together on common tasks in the lab. Sometimes this leads to productive implementing partnerships, other times it leads to being able to access each other easily when questions or opportunities to support each other arise. And sometimes it just allows stakeholders to be more familiar with the concerns and needs of other parts of the system, and enables them to act and lead with this perspective in mind.

The partnership

HiiL and Reos Partners developed the justice transformation lab approach together, building on the strengths and experiences of the two organizations. Our most recent justice transformation lab focused on Syria. We are now also engaged in a Lab in Mali. Much of the work is confidential and outside the limelight.

Hague Institute for Innovation of Law (HiiL) is a social enterprise devoted to user-friendly justice. That means justice that is easy to access, easy to understand, and effective.

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