Researcher TISCO, Tilburg University
Legal assistance: the ways of the future?
This post is the fifth in a series of six. In the coming time, you can find weekly blogposts that will present the highlight from the Trend Report: Towards Basic Justice Care for Everyone. Each of these posts will introduce a topic that will be discussed during the Innovating Justice Forum on April 16-17 in The Hague.
Few things are more clear from the last 50 years of state legal assistance, than that it does not work. At least, not for a large number of individuals. Not that the work of lawyers, para-legals, bare-foot lawyers, community lawyers, mediators, facilitators, village elders, community leaders and others, is not valuable. Quite the contrary, the work of these individuals and groups has helped millions of people throughout the world gain access to justice that would otherwise have been unreachable. However, for every case that receives assistance, there are many more that do not. One of the purposes of the trend report is to help find ways of making sure that there is basic justice care for everyone.
The trend report (and earlier blogs, which can be found here and here) highlights a selection of approaches encountered through working with organisations who provide legal assistance throughout the world. Each of these approaches focuses on making the process of providing basic justice care cheaper, faster, more efficient, or all three.
Specialisation is a phenomenon that can be seen around the world, in a range of different domains, from fast-food, to computer manufacturing, to legal assistance. It is easier to do something faster, and well, if you do it frequently. Legal problems are complex things, which sometimes require special knowledge to reach a solution. Focusing on a particular problem (such as land conflicts, family issues, or inheritance), or on a particular group with particular needs (such as children, or internally displaced people), allows expertise in these problems to grow, and for faster solutions to be reached. As the Trend Report shows, when you have specialised processes, it is easier to develop targets and benchmarks that encourage everybody to improve their practice.
Legal information has been an integral part of legal assistance from its earliest inception. However, as the Trend Report illustrates, there is capacity for further development in the strategies used. Providing information which is tailored to the needs of the disputants is essential, if the information is to be used. People in a dispute typically go first to their friends and family for advice, so informal networks become an important method of information distribution. And parties to a dispute often want to know simply what is ‘fair’. Developing sharing-rules that make outcomes that others have received clear, and applicable, provides a baseline from which others can confidently begin to reach a solution to their problem.
As you are demonstrating by reading this blog, we carry out a large proportion of our lives online. Why should dispute resolution be different? With innovations such as e-courts, cybersettle.com, and dispute resolution platforms embedded in sites such as eBay, and many others, the Trend Report shows how the process of solving a dispute online is becoming more and more common. These approaches have the advantage of being easy to scale-up for relatively low costs, making providing access to larger number of people easier. They can also be faster, with no need to arrange face-to-face meetings which take up time and can be costly.
There is also a big movement in many western countries towards mediation as an effective solution to many common problems. Indeed, the EU even issued a directive on mediation in 2008. However, in the practical technology of mediation, the west has much to learn from other countries, where mediation has been an integral, if not the only, method of dispute resolution for centuries. The practices which are used by facilitators in Egypt, Rwanda, Cambodia, Indonesia, Azerbaijan, Kenya and many other countries are based not on specific cultural anomalies, but on human nature. The Trend Report highlights the need to capture this knowledge in practical tools, which can be spread easily around the world, making efficient, effective practices the norm. But it isn’t enough to simply spread practices around, legal practice needs to follow a model where evaluation of methods is engrained. Ensuring that when a way of solving a conflict is carried out, we know what works, and what doesn’t. Only through the incremental development of the practice of legal assistance, can we hope to reach the objective of Basic Justice Care For All.