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When was the last time you had a legal problem? Not just a problem in court, but an issue that involved recourse to law—perhaps a consumer problem, a traffic issue, or a family dispute? If your answer is within the last two years, you are not alone. A remarkable new survey by the World Justice Project (WJP) found that more than half of the people they interviewed, in 45 countries around the world, said the same.

The survey, Global Insights on Access to Justice, is the first of its kind to try to understand global access to civil, rather than criminal, justice. The survey covered 1,000 people in the three largest cities of the 45 countries involved, ranging from Canada and Mongolia to Nicaragua and Vietnam. Specific legal problems varied by country, but consumer and land disputes were among the most commonly reported, with an average incidence of 25 percent and 20 percent, respectively.

The survey is an important step in advancing global conversations around the critical role access to civil justice plays in securing inclusive, sustainable development. 

To combat poverty, policymakers and governments need to better understand civil justice problems, which disproportionally affect the poor and marginalized. There is currently no global policy framework for doing this for civil law, unlike in criminal law, where the right to counsel, for instance, is asserted in a range of international and national principles.

While the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals call for access to justice for all by 2030, the two global measures agreed to so far maintain a global focus on criminal justice (crime-victim reporting rates and pretrial detention rates). The WJP data highlights the importance—and global feasibility—of legal needs–based survey measures that explore civil justice.  

The WJP data confirms widespread findings from national surveys: that when people are faced with civil justice problems, most do not turn to courts and lawyers for assistance or resolution. More than half of those who sought legal help or advice turned to a family member or friend, and less than one-third turned to a lawyer for assistance. When seeking resolution, 13 percent turned to a third-party institution or individual for resolution, with the rest either resolving their problem through negotiation, direct agreement, or not resolving the problem at all. More than one in six respondents reported that although their legal problem persists, they have given up all attempts to resolve it further.

More than half of those surveyed reported that it was difficult or nearly impossible to pay the costs incurred to resolve their legal problem. What’s more, among respondents whose legal problem was not yet settled, fewer than half reported that they were able to get all the expert help they wanted.

These issues have tangible developmental and social impacts. The WJP survey found that justice issues impact people’s financial, social, and physical well-being. Slightly more than one in four respondents reported having experienced a stress-related illness due to their legal problem. More than one in five respondents reported the loss of employment or need to relocate because of their legal problem.

WJP’s survey findings have important implications for global policy debates that extend well beyond access to justice practitioners:

  • We need to increase our focus on access to civil justice and integrate access to justice into other development and poverty debates. It is important to discuss the role of access to justice for ensuring decent work and economic growth, protecting land rights, and guaranteeing safe and adequate housing, among many other development priorities.

  • We must challenge the misconception that courts and lawyers are the solution to access-to-justice issues. We should support flexible systems of legal assistance that meet people where they are, to help secure outcomes that are more just. Nonlawyers and community-based paralegals can play a critical role.

  • We need to build on the WJP survey to develop more robust measures of civil justice. It is exciting to see national governments—in Colombia, South Africa, and Indonesia, among others—exploring how to incorporate legal needs survey measures into their development frameworks through concrete, contextual indicators. Understanding access to justice in a developmental paradigm can help to offer opportunities for new partnerships, financing models, and, ultimately, more effective programs.

If we are to build a more inclusive society, we need to better understand and account for the justice problems that people actually experience. This new data from WJP represents an important step in that direction. Members of the United Nations body evaluating indicators for the Sustainable Development Goals should take note.

The World Justice Project is a grantee of the Open Society Foundations.

About the authors: Peter Chapman is a senior policy officer with the Open Society Justice Initiative. Alejandro Ponce is the Chief Research Officer of the World Justice Project.

This article originally appeared on the Open Society Foundations website. It is part of an ongoing series presented in collaboration with the Open Society Foundations. In this series, we shed light on some of the most pressing global challenges and the work that is being done to address them. For more stories like this, go here