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Collaborating to Expand Access to Legal Aid in the Global South

Updated: Jun 18

By Shikha Pandey, Program Director, Asia

Since its founding in 2014, the ILF has co-organized the biennial International Legal Aid Conference as a key strategy to advance the implementation of the UN Principles & Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. Previously hosted by South Africa (2014), Argentina (2016), Georgia (2018), and the State of Rio De Janeiro, Brazil (2020), past participants called for conferences to be organized at the regional level, to enable discussion of progress, challenges and exchange of good practices, to foster collaborations, and search for solutions. 


The First Regional Conference on Access to Legal Aid 

On November 27 and 28, 2023, legal aid providers, judges, ministers, members of civil society, and other justice experts from across Asia, Africa, and the Pacific convened in New Delhi, India at the first-ever conference focused on access to quality legal aid services in the countries of the Global South. This two-day event was the first regional conference of its kind and was intended to initiate, facilitate, and support partnerships that increase access to legal aid services across the Global South. Hosted by National Legal Services Authority of India (NALSA) and co-organized by The International Legal Foundation, UNDP, and UNICEF, the conference brought together 191 participants from over 51 countries across Asia, Africa and the Pacific.  

Hosts and co-organizers at the closing ceremony of the Regional Legal Aid Conference.

At the opening ceremony, participants were addressed by Shri Jagdeep Dhankhar, Vice President of India, Dr. Justice Dhananjay Y. Chandrachud Hon’ble Chief Justice of India, Hon’ble Justice Sanjay Kishan Kaul, Supreme Court of India and Executive Chairman NALSA and other dignitaries.  These honored guests, and many participants throughout the event,  noted the importance of such a gathering hosted by and for the global south. It was an opportunity to discuss common challenges and solutions hyper-relevant to the Global South context, including discussions around the harmful legacies of colonialism that continue to impact justice systems today.  


The structure of this conference was uniquely planned with the aim of bringing together all pivotal actors who share a critical role in the development, implementation and administration of legal aid for enabling meaningful access to justice. From every participating country,  representatives from the following four categories were invited: Chief Justices, Ministry of Justice, Legal Aid Authorities, and civil society organizations/ legal aid experts.  

Shikha Pandey, ILF Program Director, Asia, delivers a presentation on child-centered legal aid.

The Chief Justices and Ministeries of Justice Roundtables 

In a groundbreaking effort that initiated dialogue on the vital role of the highest courts in advancing access to justice, the conference convened a roundtable of chief justices and senior supreme court judges from 15 countries. The conversation yielded in shared insights and resounding commitment, leading to the adoption of the New Delhi Principles: On the Role of Judiciary in Ensuring Equal Access to Justice for all in the Global South on November 27, 2023. The Principles emphasize the importance of legal aid in criminal and civil cases using legal information, publicly available data, integration of technology in court processes, use of alternative dispute resolution mechanisms to make access to legal remedies easier, faster, and equitable.   


A parallel roundtable of representatives from the Ministries of Justice from 18 countries, further reaffirmed role of government institutions in advancing Sustainable Development Goal 16 and identified inclusive, holistic legal aid as vital in enabling access to justice and an indispensable pillar of peace, justice, and strong institutions. The delegates drafted the Advancing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Access to Justice in the Global South culminating with the goal to review the statement for adoption in the next Ministerial Roundtable to be organized virtually by the Government of India.  


These commitments send a strong message, one that was echoed throughout the conference: effective implementation of viable, sustainable, quality-controlled models of institutionalized legal aid requires active collaborative engagement from governments, courts, legal aid institutions, bar associations, correctional services, civil society organizations, and other justice stakeholders at all levels.    


Key Conference Takeaways 

The goal of these conferences has always been to foster discussions that are practical as possible and rooted in day-to-day realities. To this end, the key focus of the conference was on how, in practice, stakeholders can work together to ensure the rights of people in contact with the justice system even in the face of challenges like lack of funding, lack of data and lack of trained lawyers.  Practitioners and experts from civil society organizations and legal aid authorities shared their experience of implementing legal aid laws and working within the justice system. They shared real strategies that have worked, and those that haven’t covering topics including models of delivering legal aid services, sustainable funding and innovative financing models, measuring the impact of a legal aid representation; improving the quality and effectiveness of legal aid services, legal aid in civil and administrative law matters, and more which can be found in the Conference Outcome Document.  

The conference concluded with addresses from honored guests including the ILF’s Executive Director Jennifer Smith.

The conference concluded with addresses from honored guests including the ILF’s Executive Director Jennifer Smith. The Hon’ble Chief Justice of India highlighted good practices that emerged from different panels. In particular, he highlighted as a positive example the ILF’s holistic legal aid model in Afghanistan and Myanmar which has contributed to the decongestion of prisons and emphasis collaboration with government and other services providers to provide people accused of crimes with the key social support services.  The valedictory note ended with remarks by Smt. Droupadi Murmu, the Honorable President of India echoing the collective goal shared by participants: “Let us work together to change the lives of the people in our countries by enhancing legal aid and access to justice.”


Many topics discussed at this conference have been discussed before and will be discussed again, but in the in-between, the time when everyone takes home their learnings and does the real work, we see progress around the world. Since November, the ILF has received feedback from conference participants that new learnings from RLAC are already being implemented by several governments and legal aid providers. Over the course of 10 years since the start of these convenings, around the world, new legal aid laws have been introduced; existing legal aid laws have been reformed and strengthened; in some countries, pay has increased for legal aid providers resulting in more and better services; some legal aid providers have improved their data collection and benchmarking. We’ve also unfortunately seen backsliding and progress lost on a range of issues globally as justice systems continue to suffer from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and rising conflict and instability.  


Justice reform is not speedy nor is it linear, but it is critical to people’s lives and long-term peace and stability.  What shined through over the course of the conference discussions was a spirit of innovation, dedication, and collaboration in the face of challenges from legal providers from across the Global South, and the power of coming together instead of trying to solve our problems in silo.  

Watch the Conference Opening Ceremony:

Watch the Conference Closing Ceremony:



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