There has long been broad agreement on the importance of building—and enhancing access to—“rule of law” systems in developing countries, but efforts to do either of these things have an unhappy history. These failures are largely a product of a flawed theory of what “law”, “justice” and “institutions” are, how they come to take the form they do, and thus how they can be established elsewhere. This theory of institutional reform, however, and the assumptions on which it rests, is not confined to the legal “sector”, but to this day pervades and is reinforced by our prevailing development discourse and practice, most obviously with respect to the status of categories such as “social development” and imperatives to seek straightforward "policy implications"; of social research. This document outlines the core tenets and assumptions of this theory, and show how its deployment in “legal judicial reform” has underpinned successive waves of disappointing outcomes. This work also outlines an alternative theory, and shows how it is informing a new generation of innovative efforts to improve the accessibility, legitimacy and effectiveness of justice systems for the poor.