The new global imperative to modernise justice systems

Governments have long been working to transform justice systems by implementing procedural reforms, integrating technology and realigning financing models—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 meet the requirements of marginalised segments of society. Now, in the next wave of reform, justice systems need to become more citizen-centric, ensuring access for all in a quickly 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. 

The impetus for reform has become even more urgent given the public’s low levels of trust in government. Preliminary results of the 2021 Trust in Government survey, produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), show that only half of respondents say they trust their national government, and just 57% trust their judiciary systems. That’s lower than trust in other government institutions such as education (68%), healthcare (71%) and police (78%). Justice leaders have a pressing obligation to maintain and strengthen trust by instituting systemic reforms to make their organisations and processes more transparent, accountable, ethical, fair, accessible, affordable and equitable to all, regardless of a participant’s geography, socioeconomic status or language. Bringing justice services closer to the public, particularly those most impacted, in more innovative and responsive ways is a critical priority. As a UK lawyer and chairman of a justice think tank puts it, ‘Our perception of justice shapes our view of society’—a view that highlights why citizen-centricity is crucial to successful transformation of the justice sector.

Over the past year, professionals in PwC’s Public Safety, Justice and Security practices around the world have interviewed leaders working in prosecution, courts, legal aid and justice-related organisations across six countries. Based on that research, we believe that the imperative for change towards a more citizen-centric, modern justice system rests upon three key enablers: collaborative leadership, prudent use of technology and modernised funding models.

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 and questions to consider to ensure you don’t lose any of the transformation momentum and ground gained during the pandemic.

The need for reform is urgent given the low levels of public trust in government. Preliminary results of the 2021 Trust in Government survey, produced by the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), show that only half of respondents said they trust their national government, and just 57% trust their judiciary systems.

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 will be essential to guarantee proceedings are fair, accessible, transparent and trustworthy. An interviewee from a Canadian provincial Ministry of Justice and Attorney General's office 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.’ 

In Belgium, for example, shortly before the pandemic struck, the nation’s Federal Public Service for Justice launched an online portal, called Just-on-web, where citizens can conduct basic transactions such as paying fines. In the future, more services will be available on this portal, including accessing court records and submitting digitised documents. ‘Cooperation between the public prosecutor, courts, the department of finance and the police has greatly improved,’ says an interviewee involved with the programme.

An important role for leaders is fostering collaboration in order to ensure that all stakeholders within justice systems have access to the information they need when they need it, an aspiration that requires robust IT systems. Some countries are already making strides in this area. In June 2020, the Dutch government approved almost US$225 million in funding for digital reform of the Netherlands’ criminal justice system, coordinated by the Ministry of Justice and Security. Under the programme, partners within the criminal justice system will share documents regarding all cases digitally instead of on paper, and video and audio material will be accessible for all stakeholders. The government is also launching a portal for citizens to take required actions in criminal cases. As a result, civilians will have better access to information, and trial processes will be more efficient. 

Similarly, the UK embarked on a £1 billion transformation programme in 2018 to modernise and digitise court services.

Future state

Several interviewees highlighted the importance of collaborating with citizens in planning modernisation programmes 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 digitising what we previously had,’ says an official in a provincial Ministry of Justice and Attorney General's office in Canada. Understanding the needs of a population is critical to provide more citizen-centric, accessible justice services. The justice system also plays a powerful role to improve outcomes for citizens by galvanising partner agencies to collaborate and address needs that justice alone cannot meet. An interviewee from one of the Netherlands’ Legal Aid Councils notes: ‘What we also see now in the system renewal is that the minister has created a pot for innovative projects. A kind of one-stop shop has been created…an integral process and integral service digitally supported for citizens and their parties. Not only legal service providers are involved but also other relevant parties.’ 

For instance, at British Columbia’s Civil Resolution Tribunal, an online platform was designed to be user-friendly and accessible, and resulted 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. 

Justice leaders can also work together to ensure that citizens have the non-technological resources they need, such as access to legal aid and affordable, quality representation. ‘There’s a perception of justice not being done, which erodes trust in the system,’ says a manager for a self-represented litigants programme in Canada.

Questions to consider

• How are you incorporating input from all stakeholders in designing citizen-centric modernisation initiatives?

• How is your organisation embedding lessons about collaborative processes from the pandemic, so that you won’t revert to formerly siloed methods?

• How can engagement with citizens happen more often, in meaningful ways to instil more trust in legal systems and the rule of law?

• Which mechanisms are you putting in place to gauge citizens’ levels of trust in public institutions?

• Are citizens who interact with the justice system being treated respectfully and in an equitable way?

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. The majority of interviewees cited investments in technological tools during the pandemic—such as laptops, routers, expanded access to broadband 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. Interviewees also appreciated COVID-related budget allocations for staff hiring and training and legal aid to cover citizens’ court costs. ‘Teleconferences became part of our daily operations,’ says an adviser to Belgium’s minister of justice. 

Now, as with the private sector, organisations are wrestling with the return to in-person proceedings and 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. ‘They don’t want to do technology all day. 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. 

The shift to e-courts, digital hearings and more accessible online services gives organisations significant flexibility. The head of Innovation and Courts Development at the Norwegian Courts Administration (NCA) reports that its judiciary now operates physical, virtual and hybrid hearings. An official with the Council for the Judiciary in the Netherlands estimates that files are digitised in 98% of its criminal cases, and an online hearing could be done for every kind of case. 

But although digitisation can streamline many aspects of judicial processes, it can also create unexpected choke points. The NCA leader notes that case backlogs have worsened in recent years: ‘The main challenge is that some cases are more complex and more parties are involved, increasing the need to translate case material’ through digitisation. Other technology solutions, such as digital transcription services, pose a potential solution. A court services interviewee in Canada points out that backlogs, along with the lack of transparency in some online hearings, have ‘an impact on trust and confidence in the system’ and can even create community safety concerns. In addition, the pandemic required rapid and widespread digitisation to keep the justice system operating, and that meant some inefficient processes and systems were digitised rather than rethought. 

A professor who specialises in the social effectiveness of justice worries more broadly that digital hearings can reduce transparency about some decisions and underlying motivations. ‘Online hearings can really increase access to justice,’ he says, ‘but they’re not appropriate for all cases.’ Clear criteria need to be in place to determine which cases are suitable for the virtual realm. 

Additionally, virtual proceedings have highlighted the need for internet access and digital literacy to guarantee that citizens, including those in remote and rural areas, can fully participate. In fact, technology access and digital literacy often have a direct correlation on trust in the rule of law. 

Several Dutch officials note that trust in the judiciary among citizens in the Netherlands is high overall, but less so among people in lower socioeconomic groups, who may use the required technology infrequently. As an official in the Dutch Ministry of Justice and Security asks, ‘Are we as a legal system able to reach certain groups in society and make them feel that justice is there for them as well?’ Any shift to expand digital proceedings needs to be done in a thoughtful way to ensure that they are accessible to all.

Future state

‘In the coming years, the judiciary will become digitally accessible for all legal areas and all case streams,’ says the official of the Netherlands’ Council for the Judiciary. Advanced technology, including AI and machine learning, can certainly be harnessed to improve legal processes and services. For instance, AI can be used to recognise patterns in digitised legal documents and files or in complex cases that contain massive amounts of data. A group of academics has developed a machine learning application to predict US Supreme Court outcomes with an accuracy of 70.2% and the voting behaviour of individual judges with 71.9% accuracy.

At the same time, justice professionals must remain cognizant of unintended consequences from advanced technologies, including AI. These might include depersonalisation 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 our interviews, a clear consensus emerged that in-person contact between litigants and courts should not be completely eliminated. And members of the Netherlands Bar concur. ‘Where a hearing is already tense, it is even more so when you do it [virtually] from your living room,’ one says. ‘It’s easier to dismiss a difficult story when it can be done digitally than when [a judge sees] someone in person. To communicate through the screen is very difficult, and the tendency to continue litigation is high. It is important that litigants can choose whether to have a digital or a physical hearing.’

In acknowledging the need for transparency and publicly available court data, the Norwegian Courts Administration interviewee states that ‘a strategic direction for the NCA would be to use technologies such as AI and machine learning to improve processes and services.’ The challenge, she adds, is ensuring that all participants understand how the technology is being applied. Transparency is important, for example, when it comes to the algorithms used by AI. But transparency is a double-edged sword; leaders need to take care that transparency doesn’t make systems vulnerable to exploitation or create reputational risks.

Organisations also need to look at the broader technology environment and create conditions that are conducive to innovation. For example, our interviews revealed that innovation may happen faster and more successfully if government agencies encouraged talent at all levels to identify and test new ideas—rather than taking the traditional approach of large, top-down programmes that take a long time to implement and often deplete their budgets.

Questions to consider

• How can you identify and harness existing and emerging technologies as part of justice modernisation programmes, particularly regarding case backlogs?

• How can legal professionals and citizens work together to decide which cases should be adjudicated in person, virtually or by a combination of the two?

• How can governments improve access to technological devices and digital literacy for all citizens?

• How can policy-makers, courts and law enforcement build the public’s trust that technological advances will protect their individual rights and improve access to justice?

Modernised funding models

Current state and challenges

Funding models at most justice organisations are based on raw outputs—typically with a focus on processing as many cases as possible. As one official tells us, ‘In the past, we had price agreements based on how many cases we would handle. If we didn’t finish those cases, we got less funding.’ These basic types of financial models don’t stimulate innovation or collaboration. They aren’t citizen-centric, and they don’t incentivise important outcomes, such as boosting public trust.  

Many investments made during the pandemic failed to address this issue, as they were focused primarily on technology. Consider a recent progress report of a justice reform programme in the UK that examines investments made during COVID-19. It states, ‘[T]he 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. The antiquated systems that necessitated the need for reform in the first place have been exposed as fragile in the face of an extremely challenging environment.’

A leader in a Canadian provincial Ministry of Justice and Attorney General's office overseeing tribunals expressed similar views. ‘Maintaining the collaborative relationship across the different parts of the [justice] sector was one of the best results of the pandemic,’ he says. He spent a year running a sector-wide working group that decided how best to allocate emergency funds for new justice initiatives. Looking ahead, though, he added that ‘we need to keep that [collaborative spirit] in place.’

Future state

Rather than focusing on basic outputs like case volume, funding should be more directly linked to the bigger objectives of reform. For example, an official in the Netherlands’ Council for the Judiciary says that it recently revamped its financial model to focus on objectives like reducing processing times and backlogs, the number of published judgments and the number of cases referred to mediation. Citizen satisfaction levels can be another outcome linked to funding. For all outcomes, organisations need to establish clear metrics, collect accurate data and analyse 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 to ensure that everyone is working together to get financing right, that citizens’ interests come first and that solutions in one place don’t create bottlenecks in another.

Questions to consider

• To what degree are financing methods among justice organisations equitable, transparent, accountable, collaborative and citizen-centric?

• Which modernisation investments made during the pandemic will carry over, and perhaps increase, in the post-COVID era?

• How do you know whether investments made in justice system reform are achieving their intended outcomes?

• Would a mixed-financing method based on outputs, outcomes and flat funding make sense for the justice system?

• What mix of financing will ensure that citizens’ interests are the top priority and that solutions don’t introduce unanticipated drawbacks?


Two main themes run through these aspects of modernisation. 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 modernisation 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 and 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 modernisation 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. 

Modernisation entails more than simply conducting court proceedings in a new way; 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.

Contact us

Tara Macpherson

Partner, Community Safety and Justice, Consulting and Deals, PwC Canada

Tel: +1 416 815 5033

George Alders

Global Government Security Leader, Senior Director, PwC Netherlands

Tel: +31 88 792 32 85

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