By Jennifer Smith, Executive Director
2019 has been an exciting year at the ILF. We have opened new offices, expanded the reach of our legal defense services, forged new partnerships, and helped shape legal aid laws and policies that will expand meaningful access to justice for all.
This year alone, we defended more than 5,500 poor and vulnerable men, women, and children around the world. That means that more than 5,500 individuals had meaningful access to justice, and thousands of families and communities around the world have more trust and confidence in their justice systems.
Core to our approach is training lawyers on practical, rights-centered criminal defense. This year, our global offices hosted 16 long-term international fellows from five countries. These expert public defenders provided over 5,500 hours of mentoring to ILF lawyers in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Palestine, and Tunisia. In turn, our lawyers shared their knowledge with more local lawyers and law students through our clinical programs around the world. In Afghanistan alone, we trained more than 200 law students.
Our lawyers pioneered new strategies in the courtroom in 2019. In Myanmar, we are fighting for discovery reform. Historically, the prosecution has not provided the accused with critical information about the charges against them so they can fairly defend themselves at trial. To change that, we’ve introduced new practices like filing requests for discovery of witness statements. In Afghanistan, we led a strategic litigation campaign challenging the practice of holding the accused in pretrial detention without a court hearing.
We are leading global efforts to ensure prompt access to legal representation. In Tunisia, the ILF expanded its groundbreaking duty lawyer project from 4 police stations to 9. As a result, in 2019, 50% of clients we represented at police stations were released pending trial, and 40% of cases were dismissed at the police station.
Through our new partnerships with UNICEF in Myanmar and World Organization Against Torture (OMCT) in Tunisia, we are reaching more kids in need, promoting alternatives to incarceration, and preventing torture. Funded by the European Union, our partnership with UNICEF is focused on providing children with access to quality legal aid services and diverting them out of the criminal justice system altogether. With OMCT we are working to reach more people at the earliest possible moment after arrest to prevent torture and abuse.
Throughout 2019, the ILF played an increasing role in the reform of national legal aid systems, with the goal of ensuring all accused have access to quality, effective legal aid services. In Afghanistan, the ILF advised the drafting of the National Legal Aid Policy and the new Legal Aid Regulation, both of which were adopted in 2019. This is an important step in the establishment of a more effective and sustainable legal aid system. To ensure their effective implementation, the ILF has been named an advisor to the newly formed Legal Aid High Commission and Secretariat by the Afghan Ministry of Justice. In Palestine, the ILF was invited by the Ministry of Justice to advise on the development of a new National Legal Aid Strategy. And in Myanmar, the ILF signed the very first Memorandum of Understanding with the recently established Union Legal Aid Board enabling us to provide expert advice and assistance to the Government of Myanmar as it establishes a new legal aid system.
In recognition of the ILF’s expertise as a global leader in providing high-quality legal aid services, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crimes (UNODC) requested our assistance in drafting the Handbook on Ensuring Quality of Legal Aid Services in Criminal Justice Processes: Practical Guidance and Promising Practices, and the Office of the Federal Public Defender of Argentina asked us to train them on the role of mentoring and supervision in ensuring an effective defense.
Justice reform takes time, commitment and cooperation. We look forward to continuing to collaborate with governments and civil society in 2020 to expand access to justice.