I would like to thank the Ministry of Justice of Portugal for inviting me to address this important Conference For a People-Centred e-Justice. Let me also take the opportunity to congratulate Portugal on their successful Presidency of the Council of the EU, and on leveraging this platform to discuss the important dimensions of inclusive and people-centred justice.
Over the past year, we have faced the greatest health, economic and social crisis of our lifetimes. Increased levels of job dismissals, evictions, domestic violence, contractual disputes and insolvencies are translating into higher legal and justice needs. People who were already in vulnerable situations before the crisis are also those most affected by the pandemic. These are the same people facing greater difficulties in accessing the justice system.
For example, due to COVID-19 restrictions, children in out-of-home care are experiencing delays in court decisions on whether they can be reunited with their families.
Citizens need better quality justice institutions that respond to their legal needs. The OECD estimates that the cost of unmet legal needs ranged from 0.5% to 3% of GDP in most countries prior to the pandemic. Moreover, when people feel that justice institutions are not responsive to their needs, or are affected by systemic biases, they become disillusioned and lose trust in the governance system as a whole. Confidence in the justice system in OECD countries was on average 57% in 2020 – compared to 71 % in the health system and 68% in the education system.
Preserving and regaining citizens’ trust is more important than ever. We see that average confidence levels in government are decreasing in at least half of OECD countries surveyed between April and July 2020. The resilience of our democracies, including the degree of confidence in the rule of law, hinges on the ability of the justice system to respond adequately to citizens’ needs.
As underscored by the 2030 Agenda, effective, people-centred justice institutions are critical to leave no one behind, to create more inclusive and sustainable development models and sustain sound democracies. But we must not stop there. Understanding the impacts of the pandemic across the full spectrum of well-being dimensions will also be crucial in developing effective recovery plans.
Our forthcoming study Framework on People-centred Justice highlights three key areas where progress can be achieved:
First, the adoption of a joint strategic vision by all key government and justice system stakeholders can ensure better services through seamless transfer from one legal procedure to another. It can also lead to an integrated provision of social and legal services, and digital interoperability.
Second, the effective use of digital data is crucial to support evidence-based service planning and adequate monitoring and evaluation of the justice system’s performance. For example, better access to justice data can help governments design and deliver the right services, recognise new trends in legal needs, and develop strategic foresight capacities. E-justice will enable all countries to start reporting under the new SDG indicator 16.3.3 on access to civil justice, of which the OECD is a co-custodian together with the United Nations Development Programme and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.
And third, the role of digital tools in ensuring continued access to justice during the pandemic is crucial. Digital tools have been instrumental in responding to the immediate challenges posed by COVID-19. They can also enhance accessibility in the long run by lowering costs and geographic barriers, while raising efficiency and case triage accuracy. However, efforts are still required to fully bridge the ‘digital gap’ and ensure that no one is left behind. The focus of this Conference on people-centred e-justice is then very timely.
While many efforts are underway to improve the efficiency of our justice systems, much remains to be done in bringing justice closer to the people. We need to work together to foster people’s trust and underscore that justice is there to serve their needs and protect their rights. It is time to build forward a fairer and inclusive justice system that works for all citizens.
The OECD stands ready to work with, and for, the EU and its Member States to advance together in this endeavour.