More room for social accountability in the justice sector?

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ImageIn many areas of contemporary development practice–from the formulation of local budgets to the delivery of education services–social accountability mechanisms are being employed to assist citizens in holding the state accountable and thus, hopefully, to improve development outcomes.

An independent and well-functioning judiciary is one of the fundamental accountability mechanisms available: allowing citizens to bring claims against the executive when rights are not respected or services not delivered; holding the legislature to account when it steps outside constitutional bounds.

But who holds justice sector institutions to account? Is there a role for citizens to be directly involved in improving the operation of courts, the police, prisons and the like?

To date, social accountability tools have had limited application to justice institutions in the developing world. Here are some of the few examples we’ve unearthed:

  • Mechanisms have been adopted to improve transparency and access to information, including the flourishing of free access to legislation and judgments online and the institution of court open days. The latter invite the public to meet with members of the judiciary and court staff. Experience from Kenya and Papua New Guinea suggest that open days can play some role in making courts seem less intimidating, yet have their limitations absent a structured means for judges and magistrates to deal with a deluge of citizen grievances.
  • Participatory structures such as court user committees, comprised of justice sector officials along with lawyers and civil society representatives, provide a regular means of stakeholder oversight and collaboration. These committees have had some success when the local stakeholder dynamics at a particular court align, but questions arise as to their susceptibility to capture (as well as apathy) and their ability to influence policies beyond an individual court.
  • Community monitoring using scorecards has been tried in relation to police as part of an annual activity called Police Station Visitors Week. Here citizens attend police stations in 20 countries around the globe armed with a scorecard of 20 indicators and rate facilities on the basis of factors such as community orientation (e.g. display of policies and procedures), physical conditions (e.g. adequacy of detention areas) and accountability (e.g. officers wearing identification tags). In some jurisdictions this has reportedly led to healthy competition between stations to be top rated, but to date it remains a voluntary exercise reliant on police cooperation.
  • Mechanisms to provide (general) feedback known as court user surveys and grievance redress known (in Kenya) as judiciary dialogue cards are being used. Paired with court user committees, the latter allow users to provide various kinds of (specific) feedback–travel distance, delay, bribe taking–either anonymously or not. The user committee’s response to each card is published on “judiciary dialogue boards” in each court house furthering transparency, but the process relies heavily on a functioning and open user committee.

Are there factors particular to the justice sector that might limit a fuller application of social accountability tools?

Judges’  independence can make them understandably wary about being seen to respond to anything but ‘the law’. At the same time citizens tend to come into contact with lawyers, judges and police far less frequently than teachers and health clinic staff for example, and this lack of familiarity creates an initial barrier to involvement in accountability processes. In some places, the misuse of coercive power by police makes enticing citizens to engage on police performance a real challenge.

Social accountability mechanisms won’t address all reform challenges, but are there particular reasons we should be cautious about such tools in the justice sector? Judicial independence is a key means of ensuring the judiciary is a strong accountability tool. What will happen if judges are questioned by the citizens at large – might their independence be undermined? And how might these tools interact with the system’s self-correcting mechanisms such as appeals, judicial councils and discipline committees?

Yet, as the new Kenyan Chief Justice has highlighted, judicial authority ultimately lies with the people and we believe that more could be done to promote citizens’ direct involvement in the administration of justice–to ensure that such authority is used in the interests of the people.

Are there other examples of social accountability tools being used (successfully or otherwise) in the justice sector or other reasons to be cautious?

We’d love to hear from you.



Nicholas Menzies

Senior Governance Specialist

Eva Melis

Senior Governance Specialist

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