The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Providing Access to Justice

The Role of National Human Rights Institutions in Providing Access to Justice project examines the roles that National Human Rights Institutions in Europe do, and should, play in dispute resolution. The project is funded by the Nuffield foundation.

Research team

The project is being carried out by a research team from three universities:

About the project

  • Background and outline

    Throughout Europe, attention continues to be paid to devising appropriate forms of dispute resolution beyond the traditional courts in large part to reduce costs and alleviate pressure on the judicial system. This project, funded by the Nuffield Foundation, examines the roles that National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) in Europe already play and should play in the provision of access to justice in times of austerity.

    The 1991 UN Principles relating to the Status of National Institutions (‘Paris Principles’) recommend a dispute resolution role for NHRIs. While this role has not received much attention, momentum to more actively promote NHRIs as providers of access to justice is growing. This is demonstrated, for example, by the work of the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) in this area. Forms of dispute resolution relevant to NHRIs include agreement-based processes such as mediation and conciliation and adjudicative-based processes such as arbitration and tribunals.

    Very little is known about the role NHRIs already play in dispute resolution; how effective and legitimate this role is; and how they deal with the due process requirements of international human rights law. This project therefore seeks to address how NHRIs have functioned as providers of access to justice and their effectiveness to date. It also addresses another important gap that arises from the lack of analysis of the compliance of dispute resolution processes within NHRIs with the access to justice provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) and broader international human rights law. This is particularly important in relation to due process issues such as procedural justice, effective participation, equality and non-discrimination and quality of outcome.

    In filling these gaps, this project will provide a baseline analysis of how effective NHRIs have already been at dispute resolution and will propose a framework for designing or modifying dispute resolution processes within NHRIs in the future, in line with the requirements of access to justice under the ECHR and international human rights law. It is anticipated that the project will play a significant role in influencing policy developments at the national and European level.

  • Key issues and research questions

    The research will be organised around the two key issues:

    • understanding how and why NHRIs have already played a dispute resolution role; and
    • developing a framework for how they should play such a role in the future.

    The project will therefore question the role that NHRIs in Europe have already had as providers of dispute resolution. In doing so, the project will question how effective NHRIs have been as well as whether there are other models of dispute resolution available to NHRIs in Europe.

    More specifically, the research questions will encompass consideration of the wide range of human rights issues dealt with by NHRIs and whether all these types of disputes would be suited to agreement-based and/or adjudicative dispute resolution processes. This is likely to be affected by other factors including the nature of the respondent in the dispute (state or private actor such as a company) as well as the necessary regard to procedural safeguards (e.g. equality of arms, non-discrimination and procedural justice) and costs.

    Research on these questions will also allow for consideration of the possibility that dispute resolution within NHRIs could assist where legal advice and legal representation (including legal aid) are not accessible. Finally, thought will need to be given to the enforceability of an NHRI decision or agreement reached before an NHRI and whether there ought to be an appeal process within the NHRI or to a court.

  • Methods and activities

    Research will be undertaken on the role of NHRIs in dispute resolution in the following jurisdictions: Bulgaria, Netherlands, Croatia, Poland, Spain, Northern Ireland, Ghana, Uganda, Canada and/or Australia. These jurisdictions have been chosen because they host commissions with experience in dispute resolution. The African commissions in particular are often held up as a model internationally. They will be used as comparators to the European models as the types of dispute resolution used by these bodies differ from the ombudsmen function in Europe, using mediation (Ghana) and internal tribunals (Kenya and Uganda). These bodies also have a wider mandates than equality bodies in Europe that have a dispute resolution function in dealing with complaints against state actors for a range of alleged human rights violations.

    This research will be organised around desk-based research, case studies and qualitative interviews with key stakeholders from NHRIs, policymakers and experts in dispute resolution and human rights. The aim is to produce a report and set of recommendations, presented as guidelines for NHRIs on dispute resolution.

    An Advisory Group will advise on the design, scope and implementation of the project throughout. The Advisory Group is composed of experts from NHRIs and policy makers as well as experts on international human rights law and dispute resolution. There will also be an expert meeting to discuss the project’s report and recommendations prior to publication.

  • Output

    Updates on the project will be published during the course of the research on this website as well as through blog posts or other publications. The research findings will be published as a major report.

    The report and recommendations of this project will be aimed at three constituencies:

    • NHRIs within Europe, the European Networks of NHRIs, Equality Bodies and Ombudsmen and their regulatory body, the International Coordinating Committee of NHRIs (ICC);
    • Government bodies, civil society and other interested stakeholders at the national level;
    • Policymakers and stakeholders at the international level such as the EU Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA), the European Court of Human Rights and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights National Institutions and Regional Mechanisms Section (OHCHR NIRMs).


  • National Human Rights Institutions: a panel discussion on their work and mandate

    Wednesday 28 January 2015, Human Rights Centre, University of Essex



    National Human Rights Institutions: a panel discussion on their work and mandate

    National Human Rights Institutions (NHRIs) are key actors in the promotion and protection of human rights. This panel discussion examined the work and mandate of NHRIS (including human rights commissions, ombudsmen institutions and equality bodies).

    The speakers considered the role that NHRIs play in the international and national human rights framework, including the different types of NHRIs and their functions.

    The speakers reflected on the continuing validity of the Paris Principles (which guide the establishment of NHRIs) as well as the differences and links between equality bodies and NHRIs. Finally, the discussion covered the ways in which it is possible to assess the effectiveness of NHRIs as well as the developing role of NHRIs in both the UN and regional frameworks.



  • 26 February 2015

    Presentation - Dispute Resolution Mechanism in the CHRAJ in Ghana, Joseph Whittal

    Adobe PDF File

    This presentation outlines the scope and mandate of the Ghana Commission on Human Rights and Administrative Justice and provides detail on the dispute resolution function. The presentation was given by Deputy Commissioner Joseph Whittal at the first meeting of the project advisory group on 27 January 2015.


For further information about the project, please contact Lorna McGregor or Hélène Tyrrell.

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