By Sandie Okoro & Paul Prettitore
WASHINGTON, DC – Worldwide, an estimated 1.5 billion people face legal problems they cannot resolve, while 4.5 billion – particularly women, the poor, and other vulnerable people – are excluded from the protections and opportunities that the law provides.
True, the news is not all bad. United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 16 aims to “provide access to justice for all,” while multidimensional poverty measures increasingly consider justice-related indicators. Moreover, enhanced data-collection methods and more readily available global and national statistics have improved the measurement of justice gaps and filled critical data voids.
But COVID-19 is creating further obstacles to equal access to justice, especially for women. Pandemic responses are likely to be heavily gendered, meaning that migrant, disabled, and indigenous women are doubly disadvantaged. Ensuring that the current crisis does not widen existing gender-based legal disparities is therefore crucial.
Those disparities were already pronounced before the pandemic, with many women facing an uphill battle to gain access to justice. Despite numerous legal reforms, women globally have only three-quarters of the legal rights afforded to men, with the worst inequalities relating to family relationships, employment, control of economic assets, and violence.
Women do not necessarily experience more legal problems than men. But they tend to face specific problems with issues like alimony and child support, sexual violence, lack of legal identity, and access to social safety nets. Taken together, the socioeconomic impact of such problems is enormous.
Furthermore, women frequently lack the financial resources and social networks to navigate justice systems. Social norms, which often are more restrictive than laws, may prevent them from taking legal action. And even when they do act, gender-biased public officials may undermine them. And women who must already balance family care with formal or informal jobs may lack the time to go to court.
Courts are not the only avenue for seeking justice, but they are an important one, and COVID-19 has exposed their weaknesses. Courts have traditionally been slow to adopt technology, rely too much on in-person appearances, and have struggled to make their services accessible to people lacking lawyers or other legal assistance. Understanding their specialized language is difficult without a law degree, while the sort of client-centered approaches common in other public services remain rare.
In response to the pandemic, courts are changing their practices in ways that may improve access, including by embracing technology to share information and conduct transactions such as submitting petitions and requesting protection orders. Remote hearings using phones and video have become a new normal, while some court services can be provided via email and text message. But while the new embrace of technology should be welcomed, vulnerable people, including women, are at risk of being left behind.
Courts have also adopted a triage approach during the crisis, for example by postponing non-emergency cases and extending existing judicial orders. Women have benefited from blanket extensions of protection orders and child-custody decisions. More generally, judicial triage points to how cases can be resolved most efficiently in the longer term.
The OECD and the United Kingdom have already launched initiatives to monitor new court service methods and capture the gains. Such data are increasingly seen as necessary to underpin judicial reforms.
And significant, lasting reforms may well be needed, given the additional threats posed by the pandemic and its economic fallout. For starters, worsening financial, family, and health problems will likely lead to an upsurge in violence against women. Germany, Spain, the UK, the United States, and Canada are already reporting rising levels of domestic violence and requests for emergency shelter. But lockdowns and other crisis measures may have cut off the usual routes for addressing violence.
Likewise, recession and unemployment are liable to reduce men’s ability to pay alimony and child support, requiring courts to enforce or amend earlier decisions. And women may find it difficult to access social-protection payments and other crisis-related benefits if they lack legal forms of identification, are excluded from public-information initiatives, or lack the financial resources to seek legal help.
Women’s financial constraints will become increasingly salient, because the pandemic is also likely to exacerbate existing economic gender gaps, further limiting women’s access to justice. For example, those whose husbands die of COVID-19 may lose access to sources of wealth such as land and savings. Without special legal protections to prevent economic gaps from widening, loss of assets will make it harder for women to navigate justice systems or afford assistance. In many countries, the poor rely disproportionately on legal aid services, which have been shown to have positive social and economic effects on women and their households. But the sharp economic downturn is likely to threaten this resource as well.
Finally, the crisis may trigger a backlash on social norms, undermining women’s ability to challenge unfair laws and practices. It could also lead to weaker enforcement of reforms of family and employment law that have benefited women.
There are two ways to mitigate these risks. First, the pandemic must not be permitted to widen the gender justice gap. This will require assessing whether judicial responses to the pandemic may have planned or unintended negative consequences for women. And we need to view gender in the context of other overlapping dimensions of disadvantage such as poverty, ethnicity, disability, language, and location.
Second, the crisis gives us an opportunity to add to our growing knowledge of what works in improving women’s access to justice. This calls for monitoring and evaluating new initiatives and collecting data. Above all, measures that help to close the gender justice gap should be made permanent and scaled as appropriate, rather than being regarded as temporary and reversible.