Eight years in the making, the UN Principles and Guidelines on Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems were formally adopted by the UN General Assembly on 20 December. PRI’s Executive Director reflects on their importance and on the task of implementation that lies ahead. PRI has been involved throughout the process.
2012 ended on a positive note with the news that on 20 December the UN General Assembly formally adopted new Principles and Guidelines on legal aid in criminal cases.
It has taken eight years for these guidelines to reach the stage of adoption as an international instrument – which just goes to show how long it takes to bring about change. The initiative started in Lilongwe in 2004 when the Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System was agreed. The Declaration set out detailed proposals for effective legal aid services which could be provided by all states, no matter how limited their resources. Thanks to the combined efforts of the Economic and Social Council, UNODC, a number of supportive states (particularly South Africa and Georgia) and the activities of other organisations including international NGOs, this important step forward has been made.
Legal aid is essential to ensure that justice is neither delayed nor denied. Throughout the world people held in detention awaiting trial form a high proportion of the prison population – an estimated 30% of a worldwide population of ten million prisoners. The consequences of pre-trial detention can be devastating for the people concerned and their families – loss of livelihood, breakdown of the family, social stigma, mental and physical illness and distress are just a few of these.
So the new standards are to be welcomed, promoted and implemented by everyone with an interest in ensuring the fairness of the criminal justice system and protection of fundamental human rights.
For the first time, states should guarantee the right to legal aid in their national legal systems – as a duty and responsibility – not as an optional add-on. The new standards make it clear that all states can provide an effective legal aid system through a range of providers that includes paralegal services, universities and NGOs, as well as lawyers. Legal aid should be available at all stages of the criminal justice process, for suspects, defendants, and prisoners. Victims and witnesses should also have access to legal assistance and information. The principle of non-discrimination on grounds of race, age, colour, gender and religion is set out in the standards and the special needs of children and women are protected.
However, agreeing the standard is a pre-condition, but not a guarantee of making change happen. Now the responsibility lies with governments and those involved in criminal justice to implement the standards. Many organisations – Ministries of Justice/Interior, Parliamentarians, judges and the legal profession, police, universities and a wide range of other professional and civil society organisations – will be involved in the process of finding a way to make the principles and guidelines a reality that provides effective justice in each and every state. With the new standards, a lack of trained lawyers or financial resources will not be sufficient excuse for non-compliance. The definition of legal aid and the different models of provision are set widely enough to allow all countries with a determination to establish the right to a fair trial to find an effective system that suits their own context. Let’s hope that it won’t take another eight years to put the standards into practice!
Read our new briefing on the UN Guidelines and Principles on Legal Aid.