SDG 16+: How to Measure Access to Justice

Updated: Jul 15, 2021

By Ben Polk, Global Policy Director


Historically, access to justice has been overlooked as a key component of sustainable development, but for decades we at the ILF have seen first-hand how access to justice builds trust in the rule of law which in turn is a necessary foundation for sustainable development. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development recognizes this essential link via SDG 16to “promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels”and in so doing sets forth a bold global challenge.


It is clear, however, that states do not have the guidance they need to meet this challenge, which has contributed to scarce and inconsistent reporting by countries on access to justice. If we hope to gain traction on SDG 16, we must clarify how exactly access to justice is to be measured.


SDG 16 is operationalized through 12 targets with 24 associated indicators. Target 16.3 addresses access to justice: to “promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all.” 16.3, in turn, is linked with three indicators that measure victim reporting, pre-trial detention, and civil dispute resolution. While these indicators are undoubtedly critical, they are also a curious medley and have been criticized as being a far cry from the most essential indicators of an equitable and fair justice system.


Of course, defining what those fundamental indicators are is no easy task. One would expect a staggering variety of disparate interpretations, and, in a sense, this exists. Leading voices in the field such as World Justice Project, USAID, V-Dem, and Praia Group (a collaboration of national statistical offices, international organizations, and civil society organizations established by the UN) have proposed a vast menu of indicators. Yet as we at ILF digested these, we were actually struck by the high level of agreement. Everyone seems to agree that things like the right to an independent and impartial tribunal, the right to a public trial, and the right to counsel are essential to a thriving justice system. Moreover, the indicators proposed to measure these things also show significant overlap and unanimity is clear that methodological guidance must accompany these indicators.


Data, measurement, and accountability have been key themes at this year’s High-level Political Forum (HLPF), and for good reason. Building on this momentum and crescendoing agreement, the International Legal Foundation (ILF), Fair Trials, and the Clooney Foundation for Justice (CFJ) believe that the time is right to move purposely towards a global consensus regarding the core elements for measuring fair trial standards and appropriate indicators of fairness and equality in criminal justice systems. To this end, we are convening an expert group that will bring together an international and interdisciplinary group of experts with deep experience in criminal justice-related research, policy, and programming. Together, we aim to identify and build support for practical and universally-applicable measures of fairness, equality, and access to justice in criminal justice systems.


The closed meeting will be held on Friday, July 16, 2021, and will coincide with the conclusion of the 2021 High-level Political Forum (HLPF).