From Conference to Community: Building the International Legal Aid Network

By Rachel Aicher, Director of Advocacy & Partnerships


COVID-19 has changed how all of us do our work and connect, yet bringing the international legal aid community together remains core to the ILF’s work and critical to our mission. That’s why we joined with partners to take the Fourth International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems online in September 2020. Now that the conference is done, however, how do we stay connected and build on that momentum?


The special virtual convening of ILAC 2020 brought together over 800 participants from 89 countries—the largest and most diverse audience in conference history. It was clear over the course of our panel sessions and discussions that legal aid providers are facing many similar challenges. The coronavirus pandemic has intensified the risks to incarcerated people, stalled justice systems, increased poverty, and hit already marginalized communities the hardest.


The Roadmap for Increasing Access to Justice Amidst the COVID-19 Pandemic coming out of ILAC 2020 stressed the importance of continued cooperation among legal aid providers to share best practices and practical legal strategies. Participants wanted to see further collaboration across borders to identify, understand, and address broad patterns of human rights violations and injustice. They also called for broader coalition-building and joint advocacy at the national, regional, and international levels.


During the conference’s closing session, Public Defender General of Argentina Stella Maris Martinez and ILF Executive Director Jennifer Smith recalled prior commitments to establish an International Legal Aid Network (ILAN) and reaffirmed the need to create a platform for ongoing exchange that strengthens the network already built through past conferences.


“We know the real work happens between these conferences,” said Jennifer Smith. “We want to use these tools to reimagine how we can stay connected in these most challenging times to work toward justice for all."


We envision ILAN as an open, global network of members working together within a human rights and development framework to ensure that all individuals have access to quality, effective criminal defense, regardless of their ability to pay.


ILAN’s mission is to ensure the right to legal aid by supporting international knowledge sharing and cooperation that strengthens legal aid systems and accelerates progress towards achieving justice for all.

This initiative has been developing over several years. In 2012, the UN General Assembly adopted the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, focusing global attention on the right to legal aid for the criminally accused. In 2014, the first International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems convened in Johannesburg, South Africa, bringing together over 250 high-level participants from nearly 70 countries. The event highlighted that, though levels of development and legal and cultural contexts differ, there are common challenges to providing effective access to quality criminal legal aid services for the poor and vulnerable. Even more importantly, it showed that there are tested solutions and good practices that should be shared around the world. The subsequent Johannesburg Declaration called on states, civil society, and legal aid providers to continue exchanging knowledge and expertise.

In 2016, the 25th session of the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted Resolution 25/2 on “Promoting legal aid, including through a network of legal aid providers.” The resolution recognized that access to criminal legal aid is crucial to protecting fundamental human rights and promoting sustainable development. It also emphasized that multi-level cooperation is necessary to exchange technical expertise on common challenges and solutions, and creating a global network to facilitate cooperation would advance this agenda. Conferences in 2018 and 2020 continued to bring together legal aid providers and build this network of exchange.


For ILAN to meet the needs of the legal aid community today requires a stable and energized platform for ongoing exchange, so members can continue conversations and collaboration between conferences.

This means establishing:

  • A dedicated online platform that can link together legal aid providers, bar associations, justice experts, government officials, civil society advocates, and international development specialists. This platform would enable members to showcase best practices, share resources, identify experts, participate in online training, and trade ideas.

  • A core team dedicated to fostering community and continued collaboration on and offline. They would facilitate technical working groups to support collaborative research and help develop quality standards, indicators, and other measures for legal aid and access to justice. The ILAN team could also facilitate coalition-building and joint advocacy at the international level to strengthen legal aid systems and expand access to justice, in addition to supporting regional and national-level advocacy efforts. Finally, and true to ILAN’s roots, these core staff would plan and support the biennial International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems and coordinate regional conferences on legal aid.

We’ve seen networks achieve remarkable progress in many sectors—such as with INEE coordinating education in emergencies, and NLADA bringing together public defenders across the United States. It’s high time to take this model forward to support legal aid around the world.


Together through ILAN, we can tackle current challenges to health and human rights posed by COVID-19 while also combating discrimination, abuse, and inequality that have plagued justice systems for far too long.


We look forward to working with partners and practitioners to build this space for the legal aid community to strengthen access to justice around the world.


If you are interested in supporting the International Legal Aid Network (ILAN) initiative, please contact us.

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