For 230 million children in the world, denial of access to justice began at birth.

That is UNICEF’s estimate of the number of children worldwide with no legal identity because their births were unregistered. It is one of the ‘societal and cultural barriers’ to justice identified in a major international survey published today. 

International access to justice: barriers and solutions, published by the International Bar Association, identifies three types of barriers: social and cultural, such as poverty and illiteracy, plus institutional barriers including the unequal distribution of courtrooms. Finally, there are ‘intersectional’ problems including distrust of the justice system and corruption. 

The study, based on findings from 26 countries, was carried out by the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.

The co-chair of the International Bar Association’s access to justice committee, former Law Society president Lucy Scott-Moncrieff (pictured), said the report is ‘just a start’ of an international effort to identify obstacles to access to justice and to share solutions.

‘Access to justice for all is an unrealistic goal, but one it is worth striving for,’ she told an event at the IBA Conference to mark the report’s publication in Tokyo today. 

According to the report, lack of access to legal assistance and representation is a global problem. While free legal aid and representation ‘are very likely’ to be available for criminal defendants, this is less likely for civil actions. A majority of the survey’s respondents said that actions against the government will not normally attract legal aid.

One solution to institutional barriers is mobile courts. In the Philippines, modified buses serve as mobile domestic courts in a scheme called Justice on Wheels, the report says. Meanwhile, new technology can help fill the gap in the availability of support staff. 

However, problems such as distrust and corruption may be harder to fix. One Nigerian respondent to the survey stated that ‘distrust arises from the concern that frequent use of formalism and legal technicalities are intentionally employed to hamper comprehension of the problems and to frustrate the cause of justice’. 

It concludes that the legal profession ‘plays a crucial advocacy role for changing regulatory instruments that operate as obstacles to access to justice’.

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