The expansive literature on law and justice across Africa emphasizes why people do not use lower state courts. Consequently, a striking lack of attention is paid to how and why people do engage with lower state courts. Drawing on a systematic literature review and a multi-sited qualitative study, we make three contributions on this topic. First, we explore how this academic gap emerged. Second, we critique the procedural justice model that currently underlies much ‘access to justice’ programming, which seeks to improve citizens’ engagements with the courts. In place of what we describe as its arithmetic assumptions about institutional engagement, value, and legitimacy, we propose a trifactor framework. Citizen engagement, we argue, occurs as people reconcile how they think the courts should act, how they expect them to act, and how they need them to act in any given instance. Third, drawing on our empirical studies, we highlight that this framework is flexible enough to capture people’s actually existing decision-making in a wide variety of settings and to map how those trade-offs shift throughout the process of their case, providing important insights into ideas of justice and statehood.