More room for social accountability in the justice sector?


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In 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

Junior Professional Officer

Join the Conversation

D Appiah
August 08, 2012

Hi Nicholas, I am interested in learning more about the social accountability tools box. Any materials that you can send to my inbox would be appreciated.

August 29, 2012

Appiah, thanks for your comment.
We have to admit that we are not aware of any tool box on social accountability in the justice sector - but if you (or others) know of one we would love to see it. More generally, the Bank has produced a number of "good practice, guidance and how-to notes" on social accountability across sectors. They are available here -,…
Of course, tool boxes, how-to notes and the like invariably must designed at a level of generality to apply broadly. Any value therefore comes in prudent application - which requires caution and significant understanding of particular local contexts.
All the best,
Nick & Eva

March 02, 2013

One of the greatest revolution in the Kenyan justice system happened after promulgation of the new constitution. There was a deliberate plan in place to allow for the judiciary to re-evaluate itself and clean its image through a series of processes. There was the formation of an independent body the JSC, which then went ahead and has vetted and made recommendations on judicial appointments.

The success of this intervention is roundly felt everywhere with public approval and confidence in the judiciary at an all time high.

My recommendation is that the vetting/review process should not be a once off, but a periodic process e.g every 5 years so that it does not allow for complacency and also makes sure there is no room for vetted judicial officers to be compromised after being declared fit.

Once the public has total confidence in the judiciary, there will be more reports of crime or civic disputes, leading to more resolutions in properly constituted institutions. This in turn will lead to lower need to bribe and compromise persons outside of the institutions, and over time, begin to reap benefits of reducing corruption