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Holistic Legal Aid: Putting People at the Center of Justice

Updated: May 11, 2022

By Holly Hobart, Senior Program Director

For people in contact with the criminal justice system, the presenting legal issue is only one of several intersecting legal, health, family, economic, educational, housing, social, and/or other needs that affect the decisions that person will need to make, and which matter in terms of the outcome of their case and the life they will lead after their case has concluded. In other words, life is complicated, and the criminal justice system is no exception. In fact, the complexities regarding causes and consequences of interaction with the criminal justice system are exacerbated by deeply entrenched racism and marginalization of vulnerable groups. But one thing is certain in this complicated web - life circumstances affect legal outcomes and legal outcomes affect life circumstances.

The ILF’s mission is to ensure the provision of quality legal aid services to people who have been arrested or detained. We recognize that every person is more than just a legal case, and every case is more than just what happens in court. ILF lawyers seek to achieve the best possible case outcomes for clients and empower them to make decisions that will help them achieve their life goals. That is why the ILF has been expanding our capacity to provide holistic legal aid around the world.

Holistic legal aid is an approach to legal representation that appreciates and supports the whole person and puts their wants and needs at the center of every decision. It involves collaboration between the client and his/her/ their legal team in pursuit of the best possible life and legal outcomes, as defined by the client, in every case. It integrates legal and social support to both defend clients in court and respond to the causes and consequences of arrest by linking clients to other needed legal and non-legal resources, opportunities, and services. Importantly, the successful provision of holistic legal aid leads to more positive life outcomes for individuals and can help reduce strain on criminal justice systems. Holistic legal aid has been shown to reduce pretrial detention, custodial sentences, sentence length, and recidivism and to increase the likelihood of mental health treatment, employment, and education attainment.

Photo credit: © Samar Hazboun for the International Legal Foundation

Elements of holistic legal aid have always been part of the ILF’s core practice principles including client-centered advocacy, early representation, and advocating for pretrial release and non-custodial measures. When legal aid providers begin representation as soon as possible after arrest and promptly conduct meaningful and confidential client interviews, it increases the possibility of learning more about their clients’ goals, lives, and social histories. This enables them to advocate against ongoing detention at the earliest possible opportunity, using clients’ social histories and verified community ties, as well as information about the facts of the case, to secure favorable conditions of release; and connect clients with resources, opportunities, and services. Holistic representation requires client-centered advocacy and collaboration between the defense team and the client to develop a plan of action that not only diverts the client away from the criminal justice system, but also helps the client forge a successful and productive life.

As has been demonstrated in the United States where holistic legal aid has been pioneered, a critical component to success is a multidisciplinary defense team that can recognize and respond to clients’ social needs. One possible model for holistic legal aid involves embedding social workers in legal aid offices for close collaboration with the lawyers and clients. Rather than being duplicative to roles like state social workers, court probation officers, or child advocates, social workers embedded in legal aid offices fulfill one aspect of a multidisciplinary team necessary to ensure people-centered justice. Lawyers, however talented, can’t meet all their clients’ needs single-handedly. Social workers are needed to help assess clients’ needs, map available resources and services, contact providers, ensure informed, voluntary referrals of clients to appropriate social services, conduct follow up and report to the court on the case, if necessary, and much more.

To build our capacity for providing holistic legal aid, the ILF has made some exciting additions to our legal practice and teams. Our International Fellows Program engages experienced public defenders around the world to mentor ILF lawyers. In 2020, we expanded the Fellows program to social workers. We have since had four amazing social work fellows who have provided hundreds of hours of mentorship and training to our teams with a focus on building capacity around trauma-informed lawyering, roles and responsibilities of social workers on legal aid teams, and safely and effectively interviewing clients on psycho-social issues. We also hired our first full-time social workers in Afghanistan and Palestine with plans to hire more in other offices; and are working with renowned experts to continue to modify practices, build and manage multidisciplinary teams, and measure success.

Working in many different legal systems across country contexts, the ILF is uniquely positioned to pilot holistic legal aid programs around the world. We hope to be able to demonstrate that holistic legal aid is a critical piece of quality legal representation, to track outcomes and learnings, to explore models and templates for implementation, and eventually, to provide guidance on best practices to other legal aid providers who wish to adopt this people-centered approach to legal aid.


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