The global decline of trust and confidence in public institutions has been well-documented over the past decade and more. But what are the implications of this decline for law and justice? Does it signal a reduced likelihood that people will turn to the law and the institutions of justice to solve their problems? How can we ensure that those institutions are as responsive as possible to the needs of the people they exist to support?
These were the questions that opened a global roundtable on access to justice convened by the OECD at the end of March. Across two days (or late at night if you were joining from Australia), the need and opportunities to ensure accessible and people-centred justice systems were explored. More than 100 participants brought perspectives from government, research, public policy and civil society, across OECD-member countries and from international institutions including the OCED itself alongside the United Nations, World Health Organisation and World Bank.
Analysis from a range of countries presented during the roundtable confirmed our experience here in Australia, that the impacts of COVID-19 have included rising legal problems ranging from contractual disputes through to an increase in domestic and family violence. The legacy of cuts to justice systems over many years created challenges in remedying these problems as they arose or worsened through the pandemic.
It is well-timed then that the OECD has been developing a framework on person-centred justice. Encompassing opportunities across services, governance, empowerment and measurement, this framework will require significant change from those working in the legal system and from those who design, deliver and fund it. But that change is more important now than ever.
In a searing explanation of why, the roundtable was reminded about the state of democracy prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, when protest movements around the world reflecting distrust in political leadership translated that distrust into the election of far-right candidates. When COVID-19 hit, many governments put in place extreme measures such as lockdowns. While these measures have received general compliance, they have also encountered resistance, including to public health orders and to vaccination. As underlying anger and distrust is unlikely to have dissipated, the roundtable heard, so we may see the re-emergence of movements that challenge the way we work and manage public affairs. These movements will likely correspond with mounting counter-pressure on institutions to solve systemic social problems from gender inequality and institutional racism leading to violence, through to climate change. The risk of rising vigilantism was just one example given to illustrate what happens when people turn away from the law to solve their problems.
Against this backdrop, it is all the more important that the law is made accessible as a tool to address individual injustice and, more broadly, as a vehicle to tackle the social inequity that erodes public trust.
Ironically, even as COVID-19’s impacts have included increased legal need, the pandemic has also enabled rapid implementation of new approaches and innovation in legal services and justice institutions with the potential to improve the experience of interacting with these systems in profound and lasting ways. Digital transformation of court settings has enabled judicial processes to move online, where the public health imperative for distancing and lockdown measures have made in-person hearings impossible to sustain. The evolving use of data analytics in justice settings has seen a whole new body of evidence emerge about what kinds of legal matters can be appropriately resolved online, even when the requirements of distancing have abated; thereby freeing up the over-stretched resources of the legal system for the issues that require a more intensive or in-person approach.
Learning from other systems is key when working towards systems-level change and the roundtable explored what can be learned from health system efforts to put people at the heart of service delivery and outcomes measurement. As health experts noted, it is only recently that health service metrics have moved from activity to outcomes, but already this shift in measurement is driving significant systemic change.
Collaboration is another key tool that supports both systems-level and person-centred approaches. Demonstrating this point, health justice partnership provided the roundtable with a clear example of where the justice system is already moving towards more inclusive approaches to meeting legal need. This collaborative approach between health and legal assistance services embeds legal help into healthcare teams and settings, to tackle the legal and social problems that affect people’s health. From its foundations in the US, where it is known as medical-legal partnership, this approach is receiving growing interest internationally. In Australia, health justice partnerships have been evolving since 2012 and now exceed 100 efforts by health and legal assistance services to work together. There is strong interest in the UK and emerging examples in Canada and other countries.
Health justice partnership is an approach that seeks to improve the responsiveness of the justice system to the needs of the people it exists to help. It responds to the clear evidence that many people do not understand their problems as legal and are unlikely to turn to legal services for help; but they are likely to raise these problems with someone they trust, such as a health professional. By bringing legal help into those settings that people already know and trust, we improve the chance of reaching people with unmet legal need at the times and in the places that they are ready and able to receive help.
As a reflection of what it means to be person-centred, this approach to justice accepts that people will seek help in the settings they know and trust, irrespective of the pathways that might be intended by those designing, delivering and funding services. Health justice partnership is a clever and timely example of how to put the needs of people with unmet problems at the centre of a system and then wrap around them the health, legal assistance and other services that, working together, can best respond to those needs.
Left unabated, the continuing health, legal and social impacts of the pandemic will exacerbate underlying inequities. As our health, legal assistance and other services grapple with the unprecedented disruption of the past year, they should take the chance to re-design their services around people and issues as they are experienced. In doing so, they can be part of the solution to the much broader social challenges we face, restoring trust and confidence in our public institutions by forging the connection between those institutions and the people they serve.