Access to justice for the poor: top down or bottom up approach?

Legal empowerment of the poor is deemed to be bottom-up approach in that it focuses on legal needs of the poor and use civil society organisations at grassroots level. But the question is do we need to use state intervention in order to resolve the problem of access to justice that poor people meet in seeking justice? @stevegolub criticized the report of the Commission on legal empowerment of the poor for focusing too much in the role of government in empowering the poor. For him this top-down approach reflects questionable assumptions. In my opinion, to reach to goal of legally empowering the poor, we need to combine both top-down and bottom-up approach.

If we really need to help poor people to access justice we must imperatively resort to state intervention because justice is primarily a matter of state. Both formal and informal justice institutions need to be recognized and streamlined by the state. It is essential to reform the judiciary, if we want to make it responsive to legal need of the poor. This reform will concern building new courts, training new judges, improving the legal aid system and so on.

Reforming the formal judicial system can be seen as a « come back » of Rule of law orthodoxy in so far as it focuses on the same institutions such as courts and prisons. But the great difference between reforming the judiciary in legal empowerment approach and reforming the judiciary in Rule of law Orthodoxy is the goals which are sought. Justice reform in Rule of law orthodoxy aims to protect the foreign investment and have an economic perspective, while justice reform in legal empowerment of the poor has as goal the protection of poor and to settle their legal problems.

In Justice for Poor program of the World Bank, there are many interventions which strengthen the formal justice and focus on the legal needs of the poor, though the program has a legal empowerment perspective.

The UNDP program on access to justice also has many recommendations to reform justice institutions by focusing on courts, judges and so on.

My opinion with this note is to show that legal empowerment implementation needs both top-down and bottom-up approach because the main problems encountered by the poor is at the formal justice level, and some corrections must be made at that level. Civil society organisations are also of a great importance to resolve the problem of access to justice, but their combination with top down approach has better impact in the lives of the poor.


Thanks for posting to ask this provocative question. Much appreciated! I hope you don’t mind, but I made some small edits to your post for readability purposes.

I think this top down/bottom up approach comparison is interesting. It would be really great if some network members can provide some examples to illustrate your point! :seedling:

If you have it handy, please provide a link or source to the @stevegolub (a member of the network guidance committee) reference. :book:

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Thank you @tobiaseigen the reference is:

Stephen Golub, “The Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor: One Big Step Forward and A Few Steps Back for Development Policy and Practice”, in Hague Journal on the Rule of Law / Volume 1 / Issue 01 / March 2009, pp 101 - 116.

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