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Towards more justice for disadvantaged people: count on civil society

Two years on, post-Arab spring democracies debate courses of action that must deliver results to their people, against a backdrop of heightened expectations. Perhaps no issue is more pressing than the improvement of government accountability and ensuring full respect of citizens' rights - with the gaining of individual liberties and social justice a litmus test. 

Because justice institutions play a key role in the distribution of power and rights, ensuring equal access to justice will be key in achieving this. However, justice sector services remain mostly inaccessible to the poor and vulnerable citizens. The obstacles they face include considerable lack of awareness of available services and the procedures they may undertake to access them, complicated procedures for accessing services, non-existence of services in practice, and the relatively high costs related fees. 

This situation precipitated a number of civil society representatives, judges and lawyers from MENA countries, but also from Europe and the USA, to exchange experience and identify concrete solutions. Key institutions such as the Arab Council for Judicial and Legal studies, the Open Society Foundation and the Euro-Arab Institute (INSTEA) outlined pathways towards more openness and efficiency of justice sector services. The discussions, held at CMI as part of the 'Rencontre Valmer' series, highlighted the growing role of civil society organizations not only in providing legal aid services but also in advocating for judicial reforms. They do, however, need to build capacity as well partnerships with a variety of national stakeholders, which all-together can develop a coordinated response to legal aid needs. 

Those needs are particularly dire for specific segments of the population, such as women facing family law cases. In a country like Jordan, they represent the majority of cases, as shown by a recent study conducted by the World Bank in Jordan (Justice Sector Services in Jordan ). Difficult access to justice for such a population has a direct negative impact on poverty rates among women and children. Countries in the MENA region have developed ways to assist with obtaining alimony and child support payments through the establishment of Alimony Funds, and while a lot remains to be done to improve this service, this is a welcome local initiative that calls for support and innovative approaches to ensure its sustainability and efficiency. 

This is why improving service delivery, for instance through more analysis of the demand side of services, technical assistance and pilot projects, is an absolute necessity. This is what will guide the development of CMI's new 'Open Government Initiatives' program, as it brings together a variety of local and international institutions working towards better governance. Civil Society representatives and participants agreed on key areas for future joint activities including capacity building for CSOs, development of data and analysis, support to women access to justice, and monitoring and evaluation of justice sector services. Participants also reached a consensus that continuous knowledge sharing was critical to achieve progress, and decided to follow-up on this first meeting with a cycle of workshops, starting next fall in a Southern Country.