ILF Perspectives: Natalie Rea on the Relevance of Legal Aid

Interview by Caleb Lewis, ILF Intern


Natalie Rea is the founder of the ILF, a senior advisor on the Board of Directors, and an appellate lawyer at the Legal Aid Society in New York. This post is based on an interview conducted over Zoom in December 2020.


Can you tell me about yourself and what led you to create the ILF?


It goes back a long way. I’ve been a lawyer at the Legal Aid Society in the Criminal Appeals Bureau since 1991. In 1996, I volunteered with Human Rights Watch to be an observer at the Rwandan national genocide trials, where there were 6 defense lawyers for 150,000 people in pretrial detention. I didn’t understand how so much money was being spent on training prosecutors, paralegals, police, and judges, yet there was absolutely no training of defense lawyers.


When I came back, I decided that I would ask Legal Aid lawyers to volunteer to go to Rwanda to provide basic pretrial representation. People had been in detention for two years already. We would explain the charges were against them, the plea bargain system, the evidence against them. That is how Legal Aid Rwanda, the precursor to The ILF, was created.


A lot was poorly planned in Rwanda, from the legal perspective. The international community had helped in drafting the genocide law and its plea bargaining scheme without understanding the local legal culture. We later decided to train a legal profession in exile, so that when they would go back, they could set up a new legal system knowing recent legal developments. We picked the Afghan legal community in Peshawar, Pakistan. It was 1999, and then later there was 9-11.


I did not wake up one day saying “I’m going to set up a legal organization to represent the accused all over the world.” It didn’t work that way. It was an organic growth sparked by my own commitment to criminal defense for the poor and the tremendous need that existed.


There are a lot of organizations doing great things in the world, working in many communities. What is special about the ILF?


We remain a unique organization that is focused solely on criminal defense for the poor. To this day, there is no other organization that does just that. It’s difficult.


If you’re going to be in a country after a conflict, the priority is not people accused. On the other hand, one of the most common abuses of power takes the form of illegal detention, locking people up for no reason.


What are some of the biggest differences that you notice when it comes to legal aid development for post-conflict countries versus countries like the United States?


In the US and places with common law jurisprudence like Canada and the UK, there are public defender offices. Whereas most of the places where we have worked are traditionally civil law countries, where they do not have institutional public defenders. Instead, they have the equivalent of individual assignment of council. So, you have to create a culture of defense because civil law countries often have a less proactive defense mechanism. It’s a whole culture that has to be developed. All this takes a lot of time and has to be a one-on-one, day-to-day endeavor.


How has the ILF grown and changed over the years?


When I left after 10 years, I had fulfilled my vision. My expertise is in individual representation, more than broader advocacy. Jennifer, who founded our advocacy program while I was executive director, had a vision for the following 10 years which has proved to be absolutely true: you can’t just provide services to individuals. I believe in service provision strongly—it’s important for the individuals certainly and for the system in that country in general—but the awareness and the rules that should be applied to everyone in all countries have to be established on a higher level. The adoption of the UN Principles and Guidelines on Legal Aid is a perfect example. Jennifer was very instrumental in the drafting and adoption of the Guidelines. I am convinced—and individuals on the committee would agree—that it would not have happened without her. I think that she was the natural extension of the decade before and what needed to be done in the following decade.


In the wake of protests for racial justice over the summer, how can legal aid organizations join the fight against systemic racism around the world?


I don’t want to be flippant about this, but I’ve worked for the Legal Aid Society for 30 years. The problem did not start with George Floyd. I’m glad that there is an awareness of criminal justice problems since then. Many of us, generations of us, have been aware and tried to raise these issues for a long time. Certainly since 1963 and Gideon.


I’m glad that it’s gotten a more general acknowledgement, and I think that’s going to make it easier for legal aid organizations. The problems have been there for a long, long time. How many times have legal aid lawyers gone on strike for pay parity with district attorneys?


I find it terribly sad that it took George Floyd for this world awareness.


How can someone outside the legal field join legal aid organizations to reduce inequities?


There is a very basic sort of education needed, certainly in the international field. I’d say it’s bringing attention, establishing rules like the Principles and Guidelines, and having countries understand the need for them. Then the next step is certainly the funding.


I remember raising funds in Afghanistan, where I said to a Western donor: if you’re going to fund the police, corrections, judges, and prosecution—and not the defense—then just go from police to corrections. There is no need for a judge and a prosecutor if there is no defense lawyer there.


Looking ahead with the ILF, what are you hoping for?


I can tell you that no one in 1996 who took off to go to Rwanda thought that we would be talking about this in 2020. We never thought there would be an organization doing the great work it’s doing.


I think that in the future the ILF can have even greater impact because of world awareness. The organization is growing. Now it has this track record and a voice that people listen to on criminal defense issues. I think the ILF has a lot of opportunities ahead to help people who are the ultimate voiceless in the world.