Governments have long been working to transform justice systems by implementing procedural reforms and integrating new technology —with the goal of improving efficiency, quality, and independence. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated these plans while also underscoring the need for greater progress, especially to better meet the needs of vulnerable and marginalized groups in society. Now, in this next wave of reform, justice systems need to become more citizen-centric, ensuring access for all in a rapidly evolving world of pervasive inequality and declining trust in institutions. Leaders must apply the lessons learned during the pandemic to set a new baseline expectation and build momentum. Reverting to traditional ways of working is not an option.

Over the past year, professionals in PwC’s Justice practices around the world interviewed leaders working in prosecution, courts, legal aid, and justice-related organizations across six countries. Based on that research, we believe that the imperative for change towards a building modernized justice system that puts citizens at its heart and increases trust rests on three key enablers:

  • Collaborative leadership, in which officials serve as strategic thinkers and work with other justice and non-justice partners to better meet the needs of citizens and achieve more effective outcomes.
  • Prudent use of technology, with new tools to increase innovation and efficiency and reduce costs while building public trust and increasing access.
  • Modernized financial models, to ensure organizations get the resources they need to deliver high-quality services focused on outcomes while remaining accountable.

Here, we offer an analysis of the current state of justice systems and challenges within these three enabling areas informed by the perspectives gained through our interviews. We also present a vision for the future to make sure that the transformation momentum and ground gained during the pandemic is not lost.

Collaborative Leadership

Current State and Challenges

A key element of reform is creating the right structure and mechanisms for effective collaboration among prosecutors, judges, lawyers, police, and litigants. Collaboration was important before COVID-19, but the pandemic made it even more of a priority. Simply accessing and adjusting to virtual services and proceedings, with participants in multiple remote locations, has required coordination (and patience). More consequentially, successful collaboration is essential for  fair, accessible, transparent and trustworthy proceedings. An interviewee from a Canadian provincial Ministry of Justice and Attorney General states: “Maintaining the collaborative relationship across the different parts of the sector was one of the best results of the pandemic, and now we need to keep that in place.

Future State

An important role for leaders is fostering collaboration in order for all stakeholders within justice systems to have access to the information they need when they need it, an aspiration that requires robust IT systems. Several interviewees highlighted the importance of collaborating with citizens in planning modernization programs as a way to strengthen trust and improve public attitudes toward justice systems. “We need to think about ways to serve citizens, rather than just digitizing what we previously had,” says an official in a Canadian provincial Ministry of Justice and Attorney General. Understanding the needs of citizens and users is critical to provide more citizen-centric, accessible justice services.

For instance, at British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, an online platform was designed to be user-friendly and accessible, resulting in increased adoption rates. “By giving citizens a service they like, in a way that suits them, you can build far more trust than just standing on tradition. We need to make sure we have all parties, not just legal professionals, in the room to provide input,” says the Canadian official.

Leaning into Technology

Current State and Challenges

The pandemic forced justice systems worldwide to shut down most in-person court proceedings and legal services in early 2020 and shift to online alternatives, with very little notice. Most interviewees cited investments in technology during the pandemic—such as laptops, routers, expanded access to internet and public web portals—to assist legal professionals and citizens in pivoting to remote work, digital hearings, and online services, while keeping all information and proceedings secure.

Now, organizations are returning to in-person and/or hybrid proceedings and wrestling with how this will change operations yet again. Technology can support hybrid processes, but leaders must think hard about how it can be used to build trust, rather than detract from it. Understanding the positive outcomes technology has enabled for legal professionals as well as participants (citizens) is a critical factor to also consider, so that they can be preserved, continued, and expanded.  

“Some people are nostalgic and want to go back to the way things were,” a deputy attorney general in Canada says. “Our concern is about retrenching to the old ways. We want to sustain the movement forward.” Leaders must consider whether a return to long-established practices works to preserve tradition or best serves the needs of citizens and legal professionals.

Future State

Advanced technology, including AI and machine learning, can be harnessed to improve the efficiency of legal processes and services. For instance, AI can be used to recognize patterns in digitized legal documents and files or in complex cases that contain massive amounts of data.

At the same time, professionals must remain cognizant of unintended consequences from advanced technologies, including AI. These might include depersonalization of legal proceedings conducted virtually, inadequate protection of individuals’ data privacy and security, and the erosion of institutional trust and equitable access to justice systems. In short, modern tools need to be used ethically alongside the expertise and humanity of justice professionals. This powerful combination creates a human-led, tech-powered approach that can help justice systems fulfil their purpose while delivering sustainable, citizen-focused outcomes.

In our interviews, a clear consensus emerged that in-person contact between litigants and courts should not be completely eliminated. Clear criteria need to be in place to determine which cases are suitable for the virtual realm versus in-person. Additionally, virtual proceedings have highlighted the need for reliable internet access and digital literacy to guarantee that citizens, including those in remote and rural areas, can fully participate.

Questions to Consider

  • Which mechanisms are you putting in place to gauge citizens’ levels of trust in public institutions?
  • How can you identify and harness existing and emerging technologies as part of justice modernization programs, particularly regarding case backlogs?
  • How do you know whether investments made in justice system reform are achieving their intended outcomes?

Modernized Funding Models

Current State and Challenges

Funding models for many justice organizations are based on outputs—typically with a focus on processing as many cases as possible. These basic types of financial models don’t stimulate innovation or collaboration. They aren’t citizen-centric, and they don’t incentivize important outcomes, such as increasing access to justice and public trust. 

Many investments made during the pandemic failed to address this issue, as they were focused primarily on rapidly standing up technology out of necessity. Consider a recent progress report of a justice reform program in the UK that examines investments made during COVID-19. It states, “The most resilient services are those where there has been investment, where we have introduced digital options for users, and new technology to facilitate alternative ways of working.”

Future State

Rather than focusing on outputs like case volume, funding should be more directly linked to the broader objectives of reform and outcomes. Citizen satisfaction levels can be another outcome linked to funding. For all outcomes, organizations need to establish clear metrics, collect accurate data, and analyze that data on a regular basis. Then, leaders can identify areas for improvement and report to the public about the performance of justice systems.

As with other aspects of reform, collaboration is crucial. It’s vital that everyone works together to get financing right, that citizens’ interests are at the core, and that solutions in one place don’t create bottlenecks in another.

Forming a Citizen-centric Community of Solvers

Two main themes run through these aspects of modernization. The first is trust. Justice systems around the world are currently struggling to maintain their citizens’ trust, yet trust in the rule of law is a cornerstone of free societies. For any modernization initiative under consideration, leaders must ask themselves whether it will fundamentally improve citizens’ trust and confidence in the system. Citizens should believe that if and when they participate in the justice system, it will be understandable, accessible, responsive, respectful of needs, and affordable. They should feel that the system is supporting them through a fair and transparent process, and not serving its own requirements.

The second—related—theme is the need to put citizens at the centre. Citizens are the group most impacted by judicial processes, yet often the least involved once the justice system gets rolling. The needs of citizens should be at the heart of the justice system, with modernization efforts focused on outcomes rather than ticking off items on a checklist. Few initiatives, no matter how well thought out, will succeed without citizens’ full participation and buy-in.

Modernization is more than simply changing court processes or implementing new technology; it is a means to rethink long-standing traditions of how and where justice is administered, to and for whom; and to improve transparency, access, and perceptions of fairness. In other words, these measures are about more than justice. They’re about creating stronger societies overall.