The 3rd Committee of UN General Assembly adopted the draft Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems last week.
The Committee had before it a draft resolution, recommended for adoption by the Economic and Social Council. It adopted the draft resolution and recommended it for final approval by the General Assembly, which is expected in late December.
On any given day, around three million people worldwide are held in pre-trial detention, around 30% of the entire prison population. In many countries the majority of people in detention are awaiting trial and have not been convicted of any crime.
Legal aid is essential to access justice and a fair trial. Without it people have no help in applying for bail, preparing their case or speeding up the trial process. The longer the time spent in prison without trial, the more the chance of a fair trial fades. Evidence goes stale, witnesses move or disappear, and the pressure on people to plead guilty increases as people wish to put an end to the uncertainty over their future.
The Principles and Guidelines are drawn from international standards and good practice and give guidance on the fundamental principles on which a legal aid system should be based. They also provide a range of measures for establishing an effective system in countries where there is a shortage of resources such as qualified lawyers.
PRI briefing on the Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems
3rd Committee of UN General Assembly, Action on draft resolution A/C.3/67/L.6, 3 October 2012
The path towards the Principles and Guidelines began in November 2004 when 128 delegates from 26 countries, including PRI, met in Lilongwe, Malawi to discuss legal aid in Africa. The meeting resulted in the Lilongwe Declaration which recognised the right to legal aid in criminal justice as a basic human right and developed an action plan for establishing effective legal aid services in all countries.
In 2007, the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) took up the issue and requested the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) to hold an open-ended inter-governmental meeting of experts to study ways and means of strengthening access to legal aid, and to consider developing a set of basic principles or guidelines. These were developed and then adopted by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice earlier this year.