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Commonwealth Secretary-General Patricia Scotland speaking at the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in Sri Lanka

Justice should not be confined to courtrooms, says Secretary-General

6 November 2019

People must have faith in the justice system for the rule of law to work, according to the Commonwealth Secretary-General.

Patricia Scotland spoke at the opening ceremony of Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting in Colombo, Sri Lanka, joined by the Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, Minister of Justice and Prison Reform Thalatha Atukorale, Speaker of Parliament Karu Jayasuriya, Chief Justice Jayantha Jayasuriya and more than 150 international delegates.

She said: “A justice system that is fair is an indispensable precondition for democracy.

“To be effective, it has to be trusted, which means it has to be accessible to all and composed of strong institutions which are legitimate and beyond reproach.”

She said ‘justice’ need not only be found in courtrooms, adding “It may be an apology that is sought, or treatment for addiction, or perhaps a community participating in a process of reconciliation.

“Delivering equal access to justice involves far more than access to a court of law, particularly in the case of vulnerable persons.”

However, distrust of the justice system, along with high costs, corruption, complex legal language, lack of access to legal aid and unfamiliarity with technology, are persistent barriers for people seeking justice.

According to the World Justice Project, more than a third of people across the globe have experienced a non-trivial legal problem in the last two years. Of them, 51 per cent were not able to meet their justice needs.

The impact can manifest in physical or stress-related ill health, while one in five surveyed had lost their job or had to relocate.

Commonwealth ministers and attorneys-general will seek to tackle these challenges, with the ultimate aim of giving people timely and convenient options to solve disputes fairly.

Ministers will discuss how to improve court processes, while exploring non-traditional avenues, such as e-courts, mobile courts and using ‘one-stop-shops’ for a variety of legal services. Problem-solving and people-friendly approaches, such as community-based systems that look at the socio-economic roots of drug abuse or mental illness cases, can also ensure more lasting outcomes.

Justice Minister Atukorale said: “More than 1.4 billion people have unmet justice needs globally or live outside the protection of the law, mostly because they are poor or marginalised within their societies.

“Access to justice is an entitlement for all individuals, whether rich or poor. All persons must be empowered to invoke the protection of their rights by way of judicial systems.”

Ministers will adopt recommendations by the end of the meeting on 7 November, which would inform justice work in their respective countries.

Learn more about the Commonwealth Law Ministers Meeting