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Access to Justice and Legal Aid

See also:

Provision of basic services
Improved local governance
Improved national governance
Pro-poor market development
A new generation of judicial and legal reform projects is creating the legal environment for accountable governance and empowering poor people by increasing their access to justice through a mix of strategies (see table below). How these projects incorporate empowerment elements is described in detail in Tools and Practices 14 (under Empowerment Resources).

The goal of legal and judicial reform is to build legal systems based on the rule of law, with laws that are publicly known and are enforced in a predictable way and through transparent mechanisms. The rules must apply equally to all citizens, and the state must also be subject to the rules. The quality of legal norms in a society and the manner in which they are administered have direct impacts on the extent to which citizens have a voice in the decision-making process. How state institutions comply with the law greatly affects the daily lives of citizens, particularly poor people who are least able to protect themselves from abuse of their rights. The extent to which a society is law-bound affects its national income as well as its levels of literacy and infant mortality.

Clearly defined property and benefit rights, and confidence that these rights can be fairly and efficiently defended against encroachment if needed, are critical to induce hundreds of thousands of individuals and groups to make investment decisions that contribute to economic growth and poverty reduction.

The World Bank's approach to and support for legal reform have evolved from an initial narrow focus on commercial law and matters most closely related to economic development and foreign investment, to a much broader understanding of legal reform from the perspective of all stakeholders, particularly the poor. From this perspective, reform is not just a technical challenge of building courts, increasing the number of judges, and providing computers, but entails more fundamental changes in governance and social norms, aimed at ensuring justice for all. It is also recognized that laws without foundation in social values and the cultural context will remain void of meaning and hence will not be implemented. This has led to two important changes. First is use of participatory processes and consultation to create ownership of needed change and to ensure that new laws are informed by those most affected. Second is recognition of the importance of traditional conflict resolution institutions and support for these as appropriate.

Currently, more than 480 Bank-financed projects have legal and judicial reform components. In addition, there are 35 freestanding projects in four regions that undertake such reform through knowledge dissemination, capacity building, and reform of laws. Judicial and legal reform projects focus on: (a) improving administrative justice, making administrative decisions accountable and affordable to ordinary citizens; (b) promoting judicial independence and accountability; (c) improving legal education; (d) improving poor people's cultural, physical, and financial access to justice; and (e) public outreach and education.

To ensure that legal reform processes incorporate the perspectives of all those affected, most projects start with broad stakeholder participation involving those within the legal system such as judges and public administration officials, as well as businesses, NGOs, and citizens. Judicial sector assessments are becoming standard practice to guide the reform process.

Recent projects have established creative long-term relationships with civil society groups. Their roles extend from working in partnership with judges to ensure accountability and transparency, as in Venezuela, to social communication, outreach, and citizen education, as in Ecuador, to institutional assessment, monitoring, and evaluation, as in the Peru Urban Property Rights project.

Inclusion and participation of poor people is ensured through a range of mechanisms. The Guatemala project is training judges and other court personnel in local languages and cultures. Projects in Colombia, Guatemala, and Peru are experimenting with decentralized court services as well as services offered by traveling judges and public defenders. NGOs are providing low-cost services in Ecuador even though costs of transportation may still be too high for poor people in remote areas. To reduce costs as well as provide speedy hearings, some countries including El Salvador use alternative dispute resolution mechanisms. In El Salvador, the Procuraduría General offers counseling, mediation, and other services to women with family problems that can often be resolved without resorting to courts.

Rules and laws are reflections of culture and society. Gender-based discrimination is embedded in the laws of many countries. A World Bank-sponsored review of laws in Nepal identified 54 laws that discriminate against women. These include laws that prohibit transfer of the mother's citizenship to children, that make married daughters ineligible to inherit property, and that require a husband's consent for women's admission to certain educational institutions.

Access to Justice and Legal Aid
Examples Classified by Major Empowerment Element

Local organizational capacity
All four projects include mechanisms to ensure public access to information

Judicial Reform Project, Guatemala

Supreme Court modernization, Venezuela

Urban Property Rights Project, Peru

  Judicial Reform Project, Ecuador


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