Friday, February 23, 2007

The concept of "Microjustice"

Today, a colleague from Europe, who knows Patricia, forwarded me a working paper on the concept of 'Microjustice", written by Patricia van Nispen and Maurits Barendrecht, for review. (Update: The paper is now available here on the website. Update 2: as well as here on the SSRN website) Patricia van Nispen is currently the President of the International Legal Alliances, which together with Tilburg Univeristy has just launched a 'Microjustice Initiative'. I know of Patricia during my previous work in Kosovo during the late 1990s, where Patricia worked on the issue of identity papers for returning refugees and IDPs.   

The concept of Microjustice is not entirely new, although this is the first time that it has been called such and  packaged as a tool that can assist with Access to Justice. The paper introduces 'Microjustice' as a for-profit model that provides access to justice for poor people, similar in concept to 'microfinance' (thus the name).  Using a market-based analysis of demand and supply, the paper argues that where the demand for justice and the supply of justice meet, the poor will be willing to pay for legal services. At the same time, to drive costs down so that services are affordable to the poor, the delivery model needs to move beyond the traditional model of 'one-to-one', to encompass tools and concepts such as information technology, economies of scale, cheap labor at the place of delivery, flexible adjustment to local circumstances, self-help and empowerment of the user.

The paper goes in at length about the details and is a relatively easy and interesting read. Aside from setting  a case for a fee-for-service, micro' model based on a rational market analysis (particularly from the 'Bottom-of-the-Pyramid reasonings), the paper also sets out some possible arguments against this approach, and proposes counter-arguments (no surprise here, since Patricia was a practicing attorney previously). In light of the the recent UN 'Legal Empowerment of the Poor' actions, this paper is timely. 

I am excited to follow this concept and see it become a reality. I like the market basis, as well as the creative use of technology and other tools to revamp the traditional justice model and make it more efficient. My worry, however, is that it ends up, like so many other development tools, as a panacea for all things development. There will certainly be many situations where access to justice by itself does not address the cause of the problem, no matter how that access is promoted (microjustice or not). There might be other situations where access to justice does not help because of entrenched politics and power that is the real cause to the issue at hand (so an interest-based approach might be more appropriate than rights-based.) Other challenges could include the lack of enforcement, the lack of appropriate laws (necessitating legal reform first), the failure of the former legal systems, the existence of informal legal systems and the possibility of negative consequences. 

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