I was privileged to be at a meeting organized by the World Bank and the Center for Mediterranean Integration on legal aid and access to justice in Mediterranean Rim countries in Marseilles. (I know, a tough job.) It is, sadly, no compliment to the US that I was there to share some of our low cost access innovations, on the ground that our access systems are so badly funded that middle income countries such as those attending might have something to learn from us. More generally, the World Bank has become involved because of the growing understanding that trust in a functioning legal system is critical for broader economic development.
There were people there from Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestinian Territories, as well as from Moldova, Lithuania and Ukraine. These last countries have been moving forward with the creation of legal aid systems, and have much to share with the Middle Eastern countries.
Some of the highlights:
That when programs from different countries realized that there were significant differences in cost per case, the response from the more expensive one was, “we have to go back to the drawing board.” Sadly, all too often in the US the immediate response is to attempt to undermine the methodology or the data. We can learn from these folks — and I told them so.
That there was so much interest in our range of innovations, such as court staff and judicial education, forms, and online legal information.
The interest in sustainability and building coherent systems. Some of the attendees, such as Ukraine, have recently build national mixed model systems. Others are putting in pilots, and trying to do so in ways that are both efficient and sustainable. It reminds me a bit of the early days in the US.
The concepts widely used in these countries of “primary” and “secondary” legal aid, with “primary” assistance being in some ways close to our “information” and “brief service and advice.” Eligibility and entitlement rules are different, and different delivery systems are often used for the two. This makes for efficiency and flexibility and is something we should focus on more.
The critical importance, understood by all, of access to justice for women, and the extent of the barriers that women face. I heard of one country (not listed above) in which rape victims are put in prison — for their (truly needed) own protection. Similarly, there has now been a change in the Sharia Courts in one country making it easier for women to file for divorce over their husband’s objection without showing cause, but they still have to waive alimony and dowries to obtain such a “without cause” divorce, obviously making it practical only for the rich.
Above all, it was deeply moving to see such a varied group of judges, court people, lawyers and others committed to access to justice, and with an understanding of the close relationship between access to justice, public trust and confidence, economic development — a message we often have difficulty communicating here in the US. Lets hope that we can improve these initial communication systems and all learn from each other — we do not have an idea to waste.