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Blog Post

A Call to Action: Global Momentum on Access to Justice Drives Progress in the United States

Courtesy of
Jesse Bernstein, Senior Advisor, Office for Access to Justice

In 2023, global actions have spurred progress in advancing access to justice, with an emphasis on placing communities and people at the center of justice reforms. The United Nations and the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development are taking new and robust steps that provide a strong foundation for action in 2024 in the United States and beyond. In line with its Presidential mandates, which include supporting U.S. efforts to implement UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 on access to justice, the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office for Access to Justice is positioned to advance these developments and looks forward to further progress ahead.    

In July, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) adopted its first recommendation on Access to Justice and People-Centered Justice Systems. The Recommendation provides a new framework for governments including the United States to advance access to justice based on a simple premise: communities should be at the center of justice reforms. This means that reforms should strengthen legal aid, ensure access for rural communities, modernize court functioning, use plain language, and base efforts on empirical data and participatory evidence-based planning.

In addition, to further our collaboration, this year, the United States joined the Justice Action Coalition, a group of like-minded governments and partners working together to champion equal access to justice for all. The Office for Access to Justice has supported membership of the United States in the Coalition, including by offering U.S. best practices, and by engaging with global stakeholders, because we often face shared challenges.

And at the United Nations, in May the UN Crime Commission adopted by consensus the first ever resolution on access to justice. As a final procedural step, the resolution, entitled “Equal Access to Justice for All,” was officially adopted by the full UN General Assembly on December 19. The resolution urges all UN Member States to reduce inequities in criminal justice systems, and requests that the UN Office on Drugs and Crime convene a first-ever meeting of experts on access to justice. This meeting will result in a report with best practices, lessons learned, and solutions to advance equal access to justice for all.

Challenges and lessons facing the United States informed and developed these new tools. During the negotiations of the UN resolution, one central focus was the need for all governments to do more to address historic inequities and support marginalized groups. The Office for Access to Justice provided technical support throughout the negotiations, including to ensure principles and actions related to equity and non-discrimination became part of the final text. The resolution ultimately included an emphasis on the importance of United Nations Member States taking “all necessary steps to provide fair, transparent, effective, non-discriminatory and accountable services that promote access to justice for all.”     

The forging of consensus and collaboration among globally diverse governments and stakeholders will serve to advance innovation and close justice gaps here at home. The UN resolution notes the importance of cross-sectoral and multi-stakeholder partnerships, such as the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable, a convening of over 28 federal agencies, co-chaired by Attorney General Garland and White House Counsel Siskel, and staffed and directed by the Office for Access to Justice.

Earlier this month, the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable held a principal-level convening at the White House, underscoring government-wide efforts to close justice gaps. U.S. Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta reinforced the urgent need to do more in the United States. She stated: “Just last month, the World Justice Project released its annual ranking of countries on their compliance with various measures of the rule of law, including the accessibility and affordability of civil justice. Of 142 countries, the United States is 115th. Among the 46 wealthiest countries, the United States ranks 46th — let that sink in: we rank last on accessibility and affordability of civil justice. This means a lack of access to basic civil legal needs involving issues like housing and evictions, employment, or public benefits.” Engaging across sectors of society, with federal agencies and global partners, can open new doors, strategies, and solutions.

The new UN and OECD commitments are not just commitments on paper. They can be used to advance real change here in the United States by providing momentum and lessons to better measure justice gaps and propose solutions. The new commitments center the UN’s 2030 Agenda. And more specifically, they encourage progress to advance UN Sustainable Development Goal 16 which is focused on promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable, and inclusive institutions at all levels. Every year, SDG Goal 16 progress is tracked based on global indicators, official statistics, and other data and information, which can help expose access to justice gaps and enable targeted solutions.  

As an example of one step to make concrete progress towards these commitments, the Office for Access to Justice is now working with the Bureau of Justice Statistics to launch a first ever civil legal needs survey in the United States to map justice needs among people across the country. We will undertake this work closely with diverse stakeholders to ensure the survey is designed to yield solutions. This work will also inform and be informed by global approaches, which is especially needed given that, according to the United Nations, “goal 16 is one of the SDGs with the least amount of data.”

In 2024, the Office for Access to Justice is inspired and ready to make robust progress to close justice gaps in partnership with governments and civil society organizations here at home and around the world.  We look forward to your continued partnership.

Office for Access to Justice Director Rachel Rossi and Senior Advisor Jesse Bernstein standing in front of national flags at the UN Crime Commission in Vienna
Office for Access to Justice Director Rachel Rossi and Senior Advisor Jesse Bernstein attend the UN Crime Commission in Vienna in May 2023.
Updated December 20, 2023

Access to Justice