Although Covid-19 initially led to a public health crisis in Latin America and the Caribbean, it soon also became a crisis of governance with unprecedented economic, social, and political consequences for a region already experiencing deep pre-existing structural inequalities. The pandemic has increased social tension and conflicts, creating a strain over social cohesion. This situation has been exacerbated by the limitations faced by judicial systems, as they have had to reduce their services and limit access to justice, significantly affecting the implementation of Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development.
According to the report by Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, published under the name ‘Justice for all and the public health emergency’, “it is more critical than ever that we transform justice systems, support the independence of justice institutions, bring justice services closer to the people that need them the most, encourage constructive engagement between the formal system and local alternatives and tackle the root causes of injustice that have left people and societies vulnerable to the broader impacts of the pandemic”.  An institutional transformation is necessary to guarantee that access to justice, both in the context of COVID-19 and in the future, is held as a way to promote and protect human rights, and to bring to life the UNDP motto of “leave no one behind”.
In this context, the UNDP in Latin America and the Caribbean prepared the report ‘Innovation, resilience and urgent transformations towards inclusive justice in Latin America and the Caribbean’, which reflects its experience and other organizations working in the region in terms of access to justice during the pandemic. It highlights how the UNDP, the judiciary, and the international community collaborate to promote access to justice as a pillar of development and social inclusion. The report focuses on the following key ways to address current and future challenges:
Access to justice during the pandemic
The surprising outbreak of COVID-19 had an immediate effect on public institutions in the region. In the case of the justice systems, the reactions throughout the region were diverse, but generally implied a substantial reduction in judicial services and an increase in time frames. Guatemala and the Dominican Republic, for example, published a list of courts that would continue operating. In Panama, all judicial processes except those related to the control of guarantees were suspended. In countries such as Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, and Uruguay, urgent cases were admitted, but with no specific numbering, leaving the decision up to the courts.
These measures had a particularly grave impact on women and girls and threatened the access to justice of the most vulnerable groups, such as indigenous populations, LGBTQ+ people, people with disabilities, older adults, people on the streets, and migrants. The pandemic aggravated an already existing context of violence. For example, “In Mexico, calls and messages requesting help against various types of gender violence increased more than 80% in the first month of COVID-19 lockdown, and applications to shelters by women victims of violence increased by 12.7% in the period between 17 March and 20 April. In Argentina, gender violence complaints increased by 39% during the lockdown, and between its onset on 20 March 2020 and 20 April 2020, 19 femicides took place. These figures are replicated throughout the entire region”.
Innovation and institutional transformation
This crisis also provides an opportunity to kickstart a process of institutional transformation to respond more efficiently to the growing demands for access to justice, as well as to play a central role in defining public policies in the sector. To this end, the judiciary must prioritize the strengthening of innovation capacities, project managing, data generation, evaluation, and monitoring, to become a protagonist in the design and transformation of its main policies.
The same report proposes three lines of work that can serve as a roadmap towards institutional transformation:
- Promote the creation of innovative programs in the judiciary, encouraging interaction with other actors in the justice system and with civil society organizations and academia. An example worth following is the experience of the Open Justice and Innovation Laboratory (#Juslab) in the city of Buenos Aires, which involved the creation of citizen laboratories in sub-national governments and innovation and technology laboratories in academic institutions.
- Rethink the relationships between judicial institutions and society, under the premise that innovation is not limited only to the incorporation of technology, but is also associated with institutional reforms and new approaches. In the new normal, justice systems are key pieces for the prevention of potential conflicts, so they require approaching people with legal problems. The approach to designing solutions of this type must be people-centered.
- Launch a data revolution to improve access to justice. This will require developing statistical systems and data governance policies, which are almost non-existent in the judicial institutions of the region. In this regard, judiciaries and governments must work together to design strategies to fill existing data gaps, taking advantage of new technologies. An example is a work done by CariSECURE, a joint initiative of UNDP and USAID, which aims to improve public policies related to juvenile delinquency and violence in the Caribbean through the use of comparable, reliable, quality data and information systems at the national level.
Facing the future: Adaptation to the improved normality
The moment the world is living, especially in Latin America and the Caribbean, calls for a reflection on the importance of understanding access to justice as a pillar of development and social inclusion. The new challenges that the countries of the region face highlight the need to work on the resilience of their justice systems so that they can respond to the new normality. Therefore, the crisis generated by the pandemic must be understood as an opportunity to launch a new generation of programmatic reforms, designed in an articulated manner and with the support of the different sectors related to the provision of justice services.
The UNDP reaffirms its commitment to access to justice by highlighting the need for a renewed effort in ODS 16. To this end, justice sector actors must work together to adopt a holistic and people-centered approach to solving the justice problems that are pressing the countries of the region.
- UNDP (2019) Human Development Report 2019. Beyond income, beyond averages, beyond today: Inequalities in human development in the 21st century. Available at: http://hdr.undp.org/sites/default/files/hdr2019.pdf
- UNDP (2020) Ensuring Access to Justice in the Context of COVID-19. Available at: file:///Users/Trabajos/Downloads/undp-bpps-rol-Access_to_Justice_and_COVID19%20(1).pdf
- Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies, Justice in a Pandemic - Briefing One: Justice for All and the Public Health Emergency (New York: Center on International Cooperation, 2020), p. 9. Available at: https://bit.ly/2UWgbBg
- UNDP (2020) Innovation, Resilience and Urgent Transformations towards Inclusive Justice in Latin America and the Caribbean. Available at: https://www.latinamerica.undp.org/content/rblac/en/home/library/democratic_governance/innovacion--resiliencia-y-transformaciones-urgentes-hacia-una-ju.html
- Ibid, p. 24
- Ibid, p. 34
- Ibid, p. 46