National Center for Access to Justice

The Global Access to Justice Goal

Risa Kaufman, Columbia Law School Human Rights Institute, &
David Udell, National Center for Access to Justice at Cardozo Law School

Access to justice is now, quite literally, on the global agenda. The post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (“SDGs”), which establish a new universal anti-poverty agenda, are scheduled for a vote before the United Nations General Assembly on September 25, 26 and 27th and expected to go into effect on January 1, 2016. With Goal 16 specifically focused on “access to justice”, the U.S. access to justice community should take note.

In the run up to the vote on the SDGs, the United Nations released in June its final report on the Millennium Development Goals. Since 2001, the MDGs have guided international initiatives to end poverty in the developing world. The final report credits the MDGs with significant beneficial impacts, including helping to halve the number of people living in extreme poverty and increasing the number of girls receiving a primary education. The report also acknowledges that the MDGs have fallen short in important respects, including by failing to address and reduce inequalities in and between countries.

With the post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals, the UN is seeking to build on lessons learned from the MDGs. Thus, the SDGs will intentionally incorporate human rights principles, apply universally to all countries, tackle the problem of inequality in and between countries, and cover a broader range of concerns. The current UN draft of the SDGs sets forth 17 Goals and 169 Targets. In addition to access to justice in Goal 16, the SDGs address gender inequality, climate change, education, hunger, health, water and sanitation, sustainable energy, economic growth, urban development, employment, housing, and more. The significance of the SDGs’ grounding in human rights is discussed in blog posts here and here.

In setting forth its unprecedented call for access to justice, Goal 16 states that countries should “[p]romote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all, and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels.” The goal is broadly drafted to extend to both civil and criminal justice systems, and to include good governance, legal identity, and the rule of law. Target 16.3 states that countries should “[p]romote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all.”

Just what is the basis for the UN including access to justice in global anti-poverty goals? The international community has come to the view that access to justice is essential to ending poverty, with the UN Secretary General explaining that justice is so essential that it must be viewed as one of the six themes driving all the SDGs. Access to justice helps people stabilize their lives and communities by assisting them to retain their homes, inherit property, secure safety from domestic violence, establish legal identity and citizenship, obtain health care and qualify for government benefits. Inclusion of access to justice in the SDGs is also consistent with their grounding in human rights.

The process for implementing the SDGs is still in flux. The UN’s Statistical Commission has established an Interagency Expert Group on Sustainable Development Goal Indicators to create global level “indicators” to promote gathering of data. This will allow comparisons of progress by countries in implementing the SDGs and meeting the targets. Countries will also be responsible for creating their own national-level indicators for meeting the goals and targets, based on their own unique features and contexts.

For all of us working to promote human rights and access to justice in the United States, whether in the NGO community, government, or philanthropy, Goal 16 would appear to offer new opportunities for increasing access to justice as a strategic response to poverty. We have developed a list of such opportunities, available in full here.

For NGOs, these opportunities include educating stakeholders (including academics, advocates, reporters, government officials, and others) about barriers to accessing justice; educating funders about the need to support research and policy reform initiatives to improve access to justice; and strengthening data gathering, indicators, and indexing systems (like the Justice Index, that can help to increase access to justice. Goal 16 will offer opportunities for NGOs to strengthen reporting on access to justice, including through the human rights treaty reviews and in the Universal Periodic Review. Goal 16 can be used to promote a broad vision of civil legal aid in providing access to justice for all (“100% access”), create new alliances between reformers around the world, and increase cross-global learning about effective reform initiatives. Finally, Goal 16 can help to reinforce advocates’ efforts to accomplish important criminal justice system reforms.

For government officials, Goal 16 can be a source of support for initiatives such as DOJ’s Office for Access to Justice and the Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable (LAIR) in identifying ways in which support for civil legal aid can help to accomplish the anti-poverty goals of federal agencies. Goal 16 also offers support for research on access to justice, including projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation and by other federal agencies and institutes. And Goal 16 underlines the importance of legislative and appropriations initiatives that would increase access to justice by providing funding for courts, court reform initiatives, and civil and criminal legal aid.

Last, Goal 16 offers opportunities for the philanthropic sector to adopt a framework for grantmaking that reduces poverty by increasing access to justice, including in the specific contexts of family security, health care, housing, legal identity, racial justice, LGBT rights, and many other areas of importance and concern to foundations.

Even before the SDGs are formally adopted, Goal 16 is spurring conversations and activities that are promoting access to justice in countries around the world. The promise it holds for increasing access to justice in the United States ought to inspire dialogue and action here, as well.

This entry is cross-posted on the:

National Center for Access to Justice Blog,, and on the

Human Rights at Home Blog on the Law Professors Blog Network.