02/03/2015 07:00 GMT | Updated 29/04/2015 06:59 BST

Justice for All Relies on Culture as Well as the Law

If we want to build a safer and more prosperous world, there needs to be a rapid, massive and sustained increase in the number of people who have access to justice.

This week, at the Global Law Summit (GLS) in London, I joined more than 2000 delegates to celebrate the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta, which symbolises the values of the common law.

Inevitably perhaps, there were fine words about how the rule of law matters to all of us. It matters to people, governments and business. It underpins safety and security, human rights, freedom from persecution, property rights, banking, finance and trade.

And yet - in spite of almost universal agreement of the importance of the Rule of Law, almost four billion people around the world still live without full protection of the law. Most of these are poor people, and a high proportion of them are girls and women. Many live in less developed countries.

All at the GLS would agree that we cannot wait another 800 years for rule of law and access to justice to become universally available.

But, as became very clear during the British Council's session on 'the Rule of Law and Sustainable Development', international conferences and international agreements are not, on their own, enough to deliver justice for all.

If we want to build a safer and more prosperous world, there needs to be a rapid, massive and sustained increase in the number of people who have access to justice. This can only happen if we acknowledge and work on 'bottom up' approaches as well as more traditional, top down solutions. In other words - national governments, business and civil society need to work together to complement the international effort.

While it is important to build the capacity of the formal justice sector, it just as important, maybe more so, to engage with culture, custom, tradition and informal local justice systems, including traditional leaders and chiefs.

Dr. Bob Arnot has been working for the British Council on access to justice, in Nigeria, for close on 15 years. On the British Council panel at GLS, Bob observed that, for the vast majority of Nigerians, local informal justice offers a quicker, cheaper option than formal justice, delivered in local language and often consistent with traditions of restorative justice that are real and meaningful to people. The key, he believes, is to work with the grain of local culture, rather than trying to impose foreign solutions.

Of course, it is important not have a rose-tinted view of informal justice systems. They can be inconsistent, biased, and not aligned with global standards on human rights and gender equity.

Nevertheless, for billions of people around the world, they are a reality, and it is important to engage with them.

International agreements translated in to national policy - such as the 'Sustainable Development Goals', set to be finalised this September - are critical. But on their own, they are not enough. If they were, as a delegate from Ghana pointed out at the GLS, the Rule of Law would already apply universally, flowing seamlessly through the implementation of beautifully-crafted national and international legislation.

So - if the inclusion of the rule of law in the SDG's is a necessary first step - what comes after that? How can we work together to advance the rule of law and increase access to justice, more rapidly, for more people? How do fine sentiments and good drafting translate in to action on the ground?

A grass-roots orientated 'cultural approach to justice' has proven to be successful, at scale, in countries as diverse as China, Vietnam, Nigeria and South Sudan

Specific, proven interventions consistent with this approach include:

• Building networks and alliances within civil society, and coordination between civil society and the police, courts and customary leaders;

• Involving civil society in shaping laws and holding authorities to account for their implementation

• Gender sensitivity and human rights training for customary leaders and for police - adapted to local custom;

• Focusing on the needs of those most marginalised from the formal system, including youth;

• Alternative dispute resolution, based on local culture

• Translating legal documents in to local language

• Community policing

• Developing and training paralegals

• Itinerant courts.

• Radio, TV, public theatre and other public education measures so that more people understand their rights under the law

There are some who might argue that this is all too complicated and expensive, and that the answer lies in top down reform and rolling out formal legal systems. Yes, this is part of the answer - but - on its own, it has not been enough, and it will not be enough.

All of us who were present at GLS wish to celebrate Magna Carta and promote justice for all. Accepting a cultural approach to law is an essential start in making sure this fine ideal can become a reality.