Access to Justice: Are We Meeting Our Objectives?

Updated: Jan 15, 2020

Access to justice for all has long been recognized as a cornerstone of democracy, good governance, and effective and equitable development.

Its centrality has been highlighted in the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goal 16 (SDG16) - which calls for all societies to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.”

Access to justice typically refers to one's ability to make full use of existing legal processes, both formal and informal, to protect their rights.

This applies to every stage of the justice chain from rights awareness within civil society to the conduct of law enforcement entities; or from having a case heard in a court of law, to seeking and obtaining an appropriate remedy.

In 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (A/Res/67/187). This is the first international instrument exclusively dedicated to legal aid, and, in accordance with Art. 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, aims at ensuring that suspects, detainees, and accused and imprisoned persons have access to legal aid.

This is central to reducing pre-trial detention, guaranteeing the best interests of children who come in contact with the criminal justice system, and ensuring access to justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.

An in-depth report published in 2019 by the World Justice Project reveals that 1.4 billion people have unmet civil and administrative justice needs. The report further states that an estimated 36% of people in the world have experienced a non-trivial legal problem in the last two years, with more than half (51%) not been able to meet their civil justice needs.

From this report and many other indicators, it's clear that there's a great need to improve the justice system world-over. A good starting point is to make it accessible for all, regardless of political, social, religious and economic status. This will help rebuild trust with people who feel let down by the justice system.


  • Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), General Recommendation No. 33, Women’s Access to Justice, UN Doc. CEDAW/C/GC/33 (23 July 2015), para. 53(b).

  • J. McBride, Access to Justice for Migrants and Asylum Seekers in Europe (report prepared for the Council of Europe) (2009), para. 6.

  • UN, Human Rights Council (UNHRC), Report of the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, UN Doc. A/HRC/37/51 (16 January 2018), para. 58.

  • World Justice Project. (2019). Global Insights on Access to Justice; Findings from the World Justice Project General Population Poll in 101 Countries. Retrieved on the 8th November 2019 from