Justice for All and the Economic Crisis

by | Jul 9, 2020

As COVID-19 plunges the world into its most serious economic crisis for a century, a surge in demand for justice is inevitable.

Businesses face bankruptcy – and whole industries may be insolvent. Similar pain is being felt in the public and non-profit sectors. Universities are running out of money. Governments, especially at local levels, are struggling to pay their wages. Charities have seen income disappear just as their services are most badly needed.

The impact on justice systems will be enormous. Already battered by the pandemic and by the strains of designing and regulating lockdowns, they should expect millions more people to need help with evictions and job losses, with debt and bankruptcy, and with disputes within families, with neighbours, and with businesses and those who are supposed to provide them with public services.

Even before the pandemic hit, justice systems were struggling to cope with demand. Most are equipped to provide justice for the few rather than for the many. At any one time, the Task Force on Justice estimated that 1.5 billion people have justice problems that they cannot solve.

“Most justice systems are equipped to provide justice for the few rather than for the many.”

Today, I join an amazing group of 42 thought leaders from the justice sector in publishing Justice for All and the Economic Crisis – the second in a series of briefings on COVID-19 and justice that have been brought together by the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies. It follows Justice for All and the Public Health Emergency, which came out in April.

The briefing starts with the aftermath of the Fire of London, when – in Samuel Pepys’s words – a “horrid malicious bloody flame” left a city in ruins. A lack of justice threatened to make it impossible to “build back better.”

Tenants were on the hook for the reconstruction but did not have the cash or the incentive to take on this huge task. Landlords could only compel them through a court system that was corrupt, slow, and already overwhelmed by demand. The risk was of decades of gridlock, paralysing the economy and leaving the homeless to sleep in the streets.

The solution was a bold piece of justice innovation – as a special Fire Court was set up:

Where normal courts were slow, it was quick, resolving three or four cases each day. Where they were adversarial, it settled most cases by mediation and mutual agreement. And whereas justice was normally expensive, inequitable, and corrupt, the Fire Court offered a cheap way for parties to solve their problems, using plain language rather than legal jargon, and with judges barred from charging fees for their work.

In its nine years of existence, the Fire Court proved highly effective, clearing the way for London to be reconstructed. But it was also fair. A principle for judges when deciding who should foot the bill was parties’ respective ability to pay. As the legislation that set up the court put it, “it is just that every one concerned should beare a proportionable share of the losse according to their severall Interests.

Our briefing is a plea for a similar commitment to innovation to protect people and economies, with the justice system acting as a platform to help societies get back on their feet. We take as our starting point the core functions of a people-centred justice system.

Solving justice problems. Preventing as many of these problems as possible from occurring. And using justice systems to help people participate fully in their societies and economies.

We analyse what the economic crisis will mean for the most common justice problems. For example, how half a million deaths – and counting – will create new demand for help with inheritance disputes. Or what will happen as renters fall behind on their payments and seek protection from eviction. Or what will happen to informal workers who already struggle due to a lack of legal protections.

We explore potential responses in each of these areas, as countries experiment with debt forgiveness programmes or a suspension of evictions and repossessions, as legal aid programmes are expanded or helplines scale up to give people the advice and support they need.

As in the aftermath of the Great Fire of London, this is an opportunity to think differently about justice systems and we propose seven strategies for how justice systems can rise to the challenge.

Justice leaders need data on justice problems to anticipate demand and then to break away from the formality and complexity of traditional institutions by investing in personal contact, tackling clusters of interrelated problems, and solving most disputes outside courts.

Prevention is absolutely essential. Justice leaders need to systematically and strategically use the law to cut the burden of injustice – using all tools at their disposal and actively advocating against decisions made elsewhere in government that will have a knock-on impact on justice demand.

And they need to look at the role that justice institutions play in making justice problems worse – through abuse and corruption, by escalating disputes and making them more destructive, and by dragging processes out in a way that inevitably leads to cost, pain, and stress.

Finally, it is time to make a positive case for how people-centred justice can help us build more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable economies – helping bailout packages get to the people who need them, providing the legal foundations for economic empowerment, and tackling the corruption that corrodes the bonds that hold societies together.

“It is time to make a positive case for how people-centred justice can help us build more inclusive, resilient, and sustainable economies”

The briefing concludes by echoing the call made here on Global Dashboard by a group of former ministers, attorneys-general, and senior judges for serving justice leaders to work together on this problem.

For better or worse, justice is on the frontline of this pandemic. The justice sector is weak and even the best justice ministers face an uphill struggle for resources and relevance. To be effective in this economic crisis, they will need to influence economic policymaking and get the big guns from finance and planning ministries on their side.

What is important about this briefing is the collaborative effort that went into producing it – and the organisations that the authors represent. The movement for Justice for All is growing and building momentum. It is fighting for a shift that is as fundamental and potentially transformative as when countries started to build genuinely universal health and education systems.

Having explored the public health and economic levels of this crisis, we now plan to move onto to the third level set out in the Shooting the Rapids report.

As we have seen from the Black Lives Matter protests, this layer is the most fundamental of them all – the role that injustice plays in fuelling distrust, insecurity, and conflict; how justice systems are far too often drivers of injustice; and the role they can play in creating more peaceful and inclusive societies.

Photo by Macau Photo Agency on Unsplash


  • David Steven is a senior fellow at the UN Foundation and at New York University, where he founded the Global Partnership to End Violence against Children and the Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, a multi-stakeholder partnership to deliver the SDG targets for preventing all forms of violence, strengthening governance, and promoting justice and inclusion. He was lead author for the ministerial Task Force on Justice for All and senior external adviser for the UN-World Bank flagship study on prevention, Pathways for Peace. He is a former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and co-author of The Risk Pivot: Great Powers, International Security, and the Energy Revolution (Brookings Institution Press, 2014). In 2001, he helped develop and launch the UK’s network of climate diplomats. David lives in and works from Pisa, Italy.

More from Global Dashboard

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

Who Speaks for the Global South Recipients of Aid?

The murder of George Floyd and the resurfacing of the Black Lives Matter movement has led to heightened discussions on race in the international development sector. Aid practitioners in the North have not only condemned the systemic racism that they (suddenly) now see...

A Blueprint for Black Lives Matter in the Development Sector

A Blueprint for Black Lives Matter in the Development Sector

Over the past few weeks – in the wake of COVID-19 and the killing of George Floyd – we have seen development, aid, and humanitarian institutions try to respond more effectively to racism. Racism is rooted in a combination of prejudice and power, and action to combat...