The more readily justice is available and the more the state is seen to be neutral, to protect and to enforce rights and bargains, the more confidence grows. Where barriers, such as costs, corruption, distance, delay and language undermine an individual’s access and give a very different experience, so willingness to trust and engage with government is undermined.

Such challenges are global and are shifting as politics, demographics and government priorities dictate. They are also some of the more difficult development issues to address with perceptions of justice taking generations to shape.

For the British Council, the Justice & Security arm covers a broad spectrum, seeing justice not only as the bringer of stability and security to individuals and state, but also a driver for prosperity and growth. From programmes tackling violence against women and girls to those supporting the delivery of fair and accessible legal aid; from those building accountability between communities and police to those strengthening informal justice; the Council is active across a broad spectrum of legal disciplines, stakeholders and domains.

Sharing critical knowledge

Part of this picture is the sharing of UK knowledge and expertise. In many of the environments where the Council is active the UK has played a significant, although sometimes checkered, historical role. Often the legacy of pre-independence UK legislation remains, such as with the regulation of policing across much of South Asia. Often too structures, as well as policies and procedures, remain in place. At times this can be helpful, enabling countries to draw on the heritage of the common law. Equally, though, it can lead to pitfalls and challenges, such as divisions in judicial responsibilities, the need for which has been lost in translation on extrapolating them from the UK. A practical consequence of this mix is that the UK, with its knowledge, shared heritage and experience can often then be a natural partner to which to turn.

Experience has shown that this cannot be an uncritical sharing of the UK’s institutions, policies and practice. As important as sharing the UK experience is being open about both the good and the bad and talking self-critically about the path the UK justice sector has followed. Prime examples of this are policing and legal aid, both integral parts of the Council’s global portfolio where, through engagement in country and forging links with partners in the UK, discussions have gone back to first principles. In those instances the questions we look to might include; what (based on the UK experience) do we think community policing should look like; and what (based on the UK heritage around legal aid) are the best aspects to draw on looking at both the current and previous systems?

Core principles

From Burma to Bangladesh and from China to South Sudan, the Council puts this into practice through an approach that is iterative, adaptive and needs based. This draws on the following core principles.

First, it means an approach grounded in a deep knowledge of local practice. In Burma, for instance, research commissioned by the Council has demonstrated that for many people the purpose of justice is ‘to make big cases small and small cases disappear’. In practice this means resolving issues through informal justice and a focus on restoring harmony rather than enforcing rights. For many people the formal justice system – our starting point for resolving disputes in the UK – would be irrelevant and out of reach. In response the Council is tailoring its work to where people actually go, focusing on making more effective those routes that already work to meet the community’s needs.

Second, it is important to do what is needed within the local context and this needs to be a system-wide approach. As demonstrated in the Burma example, communities each access justice in their own way. Often communities will look to low-cost, culturally relevant solutions. This could be the shalish in Bangladesh, an informal gathering of local leading people, or recourse to chiefs, elders and other traditional leaders in South Sudan. These do not operate in isolation. Whilst they may be the main systems used by those lacking means, they can often struggle to hold government and the powerful to account. Similarly they can sometimes fail to offer a gender-neutral response. Consequently it is imperative to think about how these processes sit within the wider dispute resolution system and consider what interventions are needed to enable the whole structure to function better. Similarly, on policing it is critical to think not just about the formal policing system, but also informal community sponsored policing and how this can be integrated into a structured, accountable approach.

Third, there has to be continual assessment and learning. Progress on access to justice is notoriously difficult to gauge. It is hard when you are the losing party in a dispute or when you feel you have been got the better of in a negotiation to say that access to justice ‘is there’. Difficult though it may be, an important part of Justice & Security development work is continuously taking that temperature and trying to see what works and what’s struggling to bed down. This ongoing learning means that programmes can change and adapt, taking up new opportunities and discarding elements that simply don’t fit or don’t work. Understanding impact as you go along gives this flexibility, liberating projects to innovate and trial challenging new approaches.

Finally, whatever is done it has to be a sustainable approach. The Council has a long heritage in many of the countries where it operates, which is critical to fostering trust with elites, with civil society and at a community level. Often though donor funding for Justice & Security programmes tends to operate only on short cycles of three to five years. Therefore the focus needs to be on using that funding to build for the long term, primarily through engaging not just with the core justice sector, but also with civil society and the wider community to change attitudes, behaviours and beliefs. Such local empowerment is critical to community-led and owned, sustainable change.

Shared interventions

In practice this can result in a tremendous variety of interventions. It could be creating a safe space for communities, police and former combatants in the Philippines or providing the international evidence base to inform legal aid policy decisions in China. Equally it may be about creating the relationships needed to coordinate across the local formal and informal justice system in Enugu State, Nigeria or delivering the information that young people in Bangladesh and Pakistan need and empowering them to set up social action programmes of their own to share the learning further.

What is important, no matter the location, is that there is engagement as equals, the building of trust and the sharing of critical learning. Knowledge and learning can be used to support access to justice globally, but also brings significant benefit back to the UK, driving innovation and learning and providing a critical, shared platform for friendly knowledge and understanding between the people of the world.

Contributor Christopher Marshall is Head of Justice, and Jessica Magson a justice reform adviser, at the British Council

The global justice remit

The British Council (originally the British Committee for Relations with Other Countries) was founded in the mid-1930s. Its original aim, in the midst of shifting and extreme ideologies, was to build relations between the wider world and the people of the UK, building on a foundation of ‘friendly knowledge and understanding’. Active on six continents and operating in over 100 countries, the Council brought access to justice within its ambit almost 20 years ago building on the UK’s legal heritage and traditional strengths on good governance and rule of law. Now (alongside its work on English, Arts and Education) Justice & Security is an important aspect of the Council’s business as it delivers programmes on behalf of donors such as the EU, Foreign & Commonwealth Office, US State Department and the Department for International Development.