International Judicial Monitor
Published by the American Society of International Law and the International Judicial Academy
Jul/Aug 2007, Volume 2, Issue 2

Justice Sector Assessment

New World Bank Justice Sector Assessment Handbook[1]

World BankThe World Bank’s Justice Reform Practice Group recently launched a new Justice Sector Assessment Handbook soon to be published that is already available at the World Bank’s Law and Justice Institutions website ( The Handbook is the product of extensive, collaborative research and analytic work by Dory Reiling, Judge and Senior Judicial Reform expert in the World Bank’s Justice Reform Practice Group; Linn Hammergren, Senior Public Sector Management Specialist at the World Bank; and Adrian Di Giovanni, Counsel/Legal Associate in the World Bank’s Legal Vice Presidency.

The Handbook is a practical guide for carrying out justice sector assessments and is primarily for Bank team leaders but can also be used for development practitioners outside of the Bank. The Handbook draws practical lessons from the development community’s evolving experience with justice sector assessments. It provides an overview of good practices from the Bank and other institutions and a step-by-step approach to organizing, conducting, writing up, and disseminating diagnostic studies.  Acknowledging that there is no one-size-fits-all model for a good assessment, the authors present a series of alternatives in terms of scope of coverage, data collection methodologies, and issues addressed. Emphasis is placed on defining the problems to be studied, verified and then resolved.

Impetus for the Handbook

With the increasing reform of the justice sector has come a realization of both the complexity involved and the insufficient knowledge base underlying reform efforts.[2] The Justice Sector Assessments Handbook attempts to contribute to building this knowledge base, and stresses the importance of good assessments. Assessments can provide understanding of what is wrong in a justice system, a foundation for reform programming and consensus building, and a baseline for measuring reform progress. Inadequate or non-existent assessments may explain why justice reform projects have become too much alike, having little focus on the specifics of each country’s justice sector.  In seeking to overcome these weaknesses, the new Handbook offers practical tools for gathering and synthesizing knowledge about justice systems and guidance on how best to channel that knowledge into reform efforts.  

Handbook Features and Novelties

Building on Existing Practice
The Handbook represents a first effort at consolidating lessons learned from past experiences with justice assessments, and may seem basic or elementary.  The beginning chapters provide a picture start-to-finish of what an assessment is and how it should be structured, explaining how the assessment’s components relate to one another and how the initial planning process should anticipate those connections. Later chapters cover each of the various components in more detail.

Definition of Justice Sector
The Handbook’s definition of the justice sector coincides with an emerging tendency to broaden the scope, transcending the traditional focus on the legal framework (which may have little relationship to real behavior), the judiciary, and other state institutions and incorporating informal mechanisms and rules as well as the influence of cultural variables.[3] Thus, giving rise to the justice assessment as a multi-disciplinary undertaking, requiring the participation of lawyers and social scientists. It also underlies the Handbook’s recognition that many of the things that we assumed about justice systems (what works and what does not work) are either not supported by or even disproved by hard evidence.

Problem Centered Approach & Data Collection
As a consequence of abandoning the traditional sector definition, the Handbook adopts a “problem centered” approach. Rather than providing an idealized picture of how the justice sector is or should be, the Handbook offers guidance on how to identify problems which should be the focus of the assessment, and provides a methodology for data collection and studying a problem once it has been identified. The main messages here in the Handbook are to reserve judgment while seeking hard evidence and to use a variety of data and data sources. “Problems” need to be defined from the perspective of the system users, and thus, their input into the assessment is critical.  One of the basic steps for identifying a problem is to obtain information from many sources because different sources – judges, lawyers, governments, civil society, bar associations – will each present their own variation of the problems/challenges of the justice sector. However, when first defined, the problem and its causes should be treated as the hypothesis that the rest of the assessment will explore. To that end, the Handbook weighs the relative value of different research techniques and offers advice on what technique to use in which case.

The Handbook also canvases the most common complaints about justice institutions: case delay, access to justice and corruption. However, this part of the Handbook could have been expanded on more complaints and additional layers of nuance and discussion for each one.

Even though checklists might make the assessment faster and easier, there are no checklists provided in the Handbook since they tend to contradict another fundamental lesson of experience: there is no magic solution to any of the common complaints or one ideal set-up for the justice system. Instead, the Handbook presents an iterative approach which aims to take into account local specificity.

Report Writing & Dissemination as Political Processes
A final area of lessons learned and practical guidance is the preparation and dissemination of the assessment report. Because the assessments are tools for building consensus and informing the reform process, their aim is not simply to describe findings but also to arrive at some conclusions and recommendations. Often, however, assessments offer recommendations which are of limited practical use; a ‘laundry list’ of solutions which are either sweeping, not prioritized, or insufficiently linked to the assessment’s own findings. Here is where the Handbook offers guidance on formulating recommendations that are both sound and useful to their intended audience. An emphasis is placed on prioritizing reforms over the short-, medium- and long-term. At the same time, ensuring that the assessment’s findings are well-received also involves a tricky political process. On the one hand, it requires balancing the sometimes opposing needs to remain objective in the assessment research and report, while on the other hand, finding ways to engage different stakeholders and make them receptive to the assessment’s possibly critical findings. There is no easy guidance on this process, yet it is one which stretches the length of the assessment and culminates with the report’s dissemination.

The Justice Sector Assessment Handbook was written with modest goals. For any one topic covered, it was recognized that there were many additional layers of insight and richness of discussion that could later be captured. In this sense, the Handbook will ideally stand as a first baseline on how to perform assessments, which can serve as a means for encouraging new experiences and more in-depth reflection and guidance on assessments.

[1] Parts of this article were inspired by and drawn from the original text of the Justice Sector Assessment Handbook, the Handbook’s website and the Report on the launch of the Handbook. These sources are all available at   

[2] Thomas Carothers is perhaps most well-known for sounding the alarm about a general lack of knowledge in the justice reform field. See e.g. Thomas Carothers, “Promoting the Rule of Law Abroad: The Problem of Knowledge,” Rule of Law Series, Number 34, (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Democracy and Rule of Law Project: January 2003)
 (available on-line at: )

[3] The institutions that are central to resolving conflicts arising over alleged violations or different interpretations of the rules that societies create to govern members’ behavior; and that, as a consequence, are central to strengthening the normative framework (laws and rules) that shapes public and private actions.

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© 2007 – The American Society of International Law and International Judicial Academy.

Editors: James G. Apple, Veronica Onorevole and Andrew Solomon.
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