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10 Years Later: The UN Principles & Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems

Updated: Mar 17, 2023

By Jennifer Smith, Executive Director

Today marks the 10-year anniversary of the adoption of the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems by the UN General Assembly.

I was a member of the expert group convened to draft the Principles and Guidelines and I was in the room on December 20, 2012, when they were adopted by the General Assembly. It was a day of celebration for those of us fighting for the right to high-quality legal representation for everyone arrested or detained. For the first time in history, the Principles and Guidelines made clear to States that “anyone who is detained, arrested, suspected of, or charged with a criminal offence punishable by a term of imprisonment or the death penalty is entitled to legal aid at all stages of the criminal justice process.” They also made clear that having a lawyer present on the day of the trial was not enough to satisfy the right to legal aid, but that a qualified lawyer should be present at all stages of the criminal justice process. Importantly, the Principles and Guidelines provide practical guidance to countries on how to implement the right to legal aid in practice.

The adoption of the Principles and Guidelines was a huge victory, but much work is still needed to fulfill its promise. Around the world, the vast majority of people suspected or accused of criminal offenses will not have access to a qualified lawyer. In many places, if a lawyer is provided, it may not be until the day of trial and the quality of representation varies greatly. Denied access to legal aid, poor and marginalized accused persons are more likely to experience violations of their rights, discrimination, wrongful conviction, and harsher punishments, including the death penalty. This is not equal justice.

So, today while we celebrate the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines, we also call on the international community to double down on efforts to ensure the right to legal aid becomes a reality. One such effort that we commit to continuing to support is the International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.

Following the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines, the International Legal Foundation worked with the Government of South Africa, Legal Aid South Africa, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the United Nations Development Programme, and Open Society Foundations to convene the world’s first international legal aid conference. The conference brought together over 200 leaders and experts from over 60 countries to share their knowledge, experiences, and good practices and strategies for providing effective legal aid services.

Subsequently, the conference became a biennial event, hosted by Argentina and their

Federal Public Defender’s Office, Georgia and their Legal Aid Service, and Brazil and the Rio Public Defender’s Office. This conference has had an enormous impact on the global crisis in access to legal aid. As a direct result of their participation in the conference, countries have adopted legal aid legislation, restructured their legal aid institutions, and reformed their practices. Meaningfully, the conference has also created a global legal aid community that is rallying to support each other in the fight for equal access to justice.

We are grateful to the many governments, UN agencies -- including UNODC, UNDP, UNICEF and OHCHR, legal aid providers, civil society organizations, and the many legal aid institutions, experts, activists, and legal aid practitioners from around the world who were instrumental in the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines and continue to support their implementation. We look forward to continued collaboration to make justice a reality for all by ensuring the right to legal aid.


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