Feature Friday: UN Resolution on Access to Legal Aid

This Friday, I want to feature something a little different. Not an organization, but a little-known new UN Resolution which is truly groundbreaking. In a number of countries across Africa, Asia, and Latin America, access to legal services (even when accused of a crime) is unfortunately not a guaranteed human right. In the U.S., our criminal justice system is deeply flawed and racialized, with unequal access to high-quality criminal defense. However, this basic right is not even guaranteed for the poor in many parts of the world, leading to protracted pre-trial detention periods.

Often, people have been in prison for up to 10 years (!) without ever having met a lawyer or seen the inside of a courtroom. On top of this, prison conditions in many countries are so wretched that many prisoners – convicted and pre-trial alike – never get out. Tuberculosis, malaria, and other infectious diseases, combined with poor sanitation and lack of space in many cases leads to illness or death. The number of lawyers in several countries is grossly inadequate compared to the need for legal services. So, it is clear why states must begin instituting public defense systems to ensure those charged with a crime can be adequately represented.

Enter the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, adopted by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice.  This is the first international instrument on legal aid, so it is truly groundbreaking. According to a great blog post by the Open Society Institute:

The genesis of this resolution was the 2004 Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System in Africa. In 2007 ECOSOC called on the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime to develop a global instrument. Since 2009 groups of experts, from all continents, including the Open Society Justice Initiative, have gathered several times in Vienna to draw together best practices and develop a draft that was reviewed by the Member States in 2011. The result is a practical document that traces the criminal justice system from the pretrial to post-trial stage and highlights a number of important components:

  • Prompt access to legal aid at all stages of the criminal justice process.
  • The involvement of a diversity of legal aid providers including lawyers, university legal clinicians and paralegals.
  • The development of a nationwide legal aid system that is sufficiently staffed and resourced.

Namati also has a good overview. This is deeply exciting and inspiring news: the world is finally beginning to recognize the importance of basic legal services for the poor. Of course, now begins the hard work of implementation, but this instrument can provide a basic foundation and blueprint from which governments and civil society groups can start. And with an eye to legal aid issues related to gender: I also hope we can eventually move towards similar resolutions relating to legal services for survivors of gender-based violence as well as asylum seekers, populations who are also in dire need of basic legal services, and who are frequently in life and death situations to boot.

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