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The Commonwealth countries are dedicated to providing legal recourse to all, especially the poor and unemployed.
The Commonwealth countries are dedicated to providing legal recourse to all, especially the poor and unemployed.

ACCESS to justice for everyone in all communities is an important right for building fair and peaceful societies.

But yet this objective has been achieved in few if any nation, and the consequences are damaging for social, economic and political progress.

Studies indicate that of the 1.4 billion people who, for whatever reason in the past two years, felt the need for recourse to law, less than half have had their justice needs met.

Barriers such as cost, complexity and corruption cause people either not to seek redress, or to be defeated by the process.

The 53 countries of the Commonwealth are committed to taking action to right this wrong. Each member country is committed through our Commonwealth Charter to “an independent,
effective and competent legal system” which “is integral to upholding the rule of law, engendering public confidence and dispensing justice”.

While many are fortunate to have a system that can be relied upon to give a fair hearing and resolution, for millions of people around the world, this is sadly not the case.

Our priority has to be to answer the needs of all people, particularly the poor and unemployed, as well as victims of domestic violence whose experience far too often is to feel marginalised by judicial processes.

Poverty affects access to justice in many ways, and discriminatory laws perpetuate disadvantage. Income, gender and location can be factors in people being denied equitable access to justice.

Sometimes, several of these factors combine severely to the detriment of victims or offenders from already vulnerable groups.

Even where equal and progressive laws exist, swingeing cuts to legal aid, or lack of legal aid altogether, can impair access to justice, particularly for the most vulnerable.

Lack of access to justice then leads to further injustice — with people denied their rights or a voice, unable to fight discrimination and prevented from holding public bodies to account.

The result is that progress towards sustainable development at national, community or personal levels is limited, and opportunities for inclusive growth and prosperity are lost. At worst, injustice can be the root of conflict even though people are generally not seeking revenge but recompense and restoration.

Systems should ensure these avenues to resolution are available because, without them, anger and resentment can fester.

Digital resources such as e-courts and interactive information services are helping to improve inclusivity.

Yet, even with such innovative approaches and mechanisms, those same vulnerable groups may continue to experience obstacles to affordable and equitable access. So we need to be aware that the promising solutions technology offers can also prolong existing problems or present new ones.

This means that just as lawbreakers find ever more sophisticated ways of using technology for crime, lawmakers must leverage what technology can do to keep ahead or abreast of such threats.

Our related systems of governance and administration, and the widespread use in our jurisdictions of the Common Law, make the Commonwealth ideally placed as a community to think and act together towards fairer and more inclusive access to justice with improved outcomes.

By learning and gaining encouragement from one another, our member countries are able to accelerate progress towards creating effective national laws. They are helped in this by Commonwealth toolkits that guide on matters such as policymaking and legislative drafting.

The beneficial impact of this cooperation is enhanced through the expert technical assistance provided to member countries by the Commonwealth Secretariat.

PATRICIA SCOTLAND

Commonwealth secretary-general London

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