The ILF: 2021 Year in Review

Updated: May 11

By Leah Conklin, Advocacy & Communications Director



2021 was a challenging year. The ILF’s teams around the world in Afghanistan, Myanmar, Nepal, Palestine, and Tunisia have continued to navigate increasing political instability, intense conflict, and the ongoing pandemic as they fight on the frontlines of justice. Despite these immense challenges, the ILF has made critical strides for justice and has demonstrated the essential nature of fierce advocacy and quality legal aid, especially in times of crisis.


Here are just a few highlights from the year:

In 2021, we defended more than 5,000 poor and vulnerable men, women, and children globally. The ILF secured the release of at least 1,837 clients. 1,207 clients were sentenced to alternatives to incarceration or benefited from diversionary measures, such as mediation.


The ILF was named the National Association of Public Defender’s (NACDL) 2021 Champion of Public Defense for our advocacy, strategic litigation, and legal aid services through which we are promoting alternatives to incarceration and fighting--and winning--against excessive pretrial detention, and the criminalization of petty offenses. The ILF was also selected as a 2021 World Justice Challenge Finalist for our work to support safe reentry for women and girls in Afghanistan. We were among 30 organizations chosen from 425 submissions received from 114 countries.


We defended the rights and welfare of vulnerable populations through conflict and political collapse. In Myanmar, in addition to continuing critical legal representation following the February 2021 coup, the ILF team stepped in to ensure detainees could access basic needs, including food, medicines, PPE supplies, sanitary kits, and other necessities. In Afghanistan, in the period leading up to the fall of Kabul to the Taliban and during the weeks that followed, the ILF moved quickly to adapt and continue to provide vital legal aid services to the most vulnerable. This included round-the-clock work to ensure the safety of staff, clients, and confidential information. The ILF remains operational in Afghanistan and is working to promote the right to counsel and fair trial principles.


We built our capacity to provide holistic representation. We engaged our first ever social work fellows and hired our first full-time social workers in Palestine and Afghanistan.


We expanded our expertise on the use of Mediation and Alternatives to Incarceration to keep people out of detention in the MENA region. In Palestine, ILF lawyers successfully represented clients in more than 150 mediation sessions. In Tunisia, the ILF developed a training curriculum to empower lawyers across the country with the knowledge and tools they need to advocate for alternatives to incarceration (ATI) and fight to keep people out of the criminal justice system. We also conducted a training of trainers program on ATI in all eight regions of Tunisia.


In Nepal, the ILF, with our partner PDS-Nepal, advanced protections for children in conflict with the law. PDS-Nepal and the ILF litigation several laws and practices criminalizing poverty in front of the Supreme Court, including the detention of children unable to pay fines. While the Court did not decide on the constitutional issue in the habeas corpus petitions, it invited PDS-Nepal to bring a case to the full Constitutional Bench. PDS-Nepal and the ILF also conducted a survey of all juveniles held in detention across the country – more than 900 children. As a result, PDS-Nepal is armed with data highlighting the unjust impact fines are having on poor and marginalized children, as well as details on the lived experiences of children detained. A report of the survey findings will be published in 2022.


The ILF continued to look at opportunities to expand into new countries and is an increasingly sought-after expert. In Indonesia, the ILF partnered with Yayasan Lembaga Bantuan Hukum Indonesia (YLBHI), an Indonesian Legal Aid Foundation, to conduct a six-month intensive mentoring program for a diverse group of legal aid providers. In Mongolia, the ILF delivered an introductory training on the role of defense lawyers and quality legal aid representation to nearly 50 Mongolian public defenders working with the Legal Aid Center of Mongolia. The ILF continued to conduct an assessment of the Ethiopian public defender system in collaboration with Cravath and Swaine & Moore LLP.


We published a new resource titled Pretrial Motions: A Primer for Legal Aid Lawyers. It provides practical guidance for legal aid lawyers around the world - based on the ILF’s experience - on one of the most effective legal tools to defend fair trial rights from the moment of arrest.


We convened global experts to build consensus on indicators for measuring access to justice and fair trials. In partnership with The Clooney Foundation for Justice and FairTrials, the ILF hosted the first in a series of meetings on this topic. It drew the participation of 50 experts.


We ensured legal aid remained at the forefront of international conversations on criminal justice. Thanks to the advocacy of the ILF and its allies, consensus was reached on the Declaration put forward at the Kyoto Crime Congress to advance quality legal aid and strengthen the International Legal Aid Network (ILAN). ILF experts also participated in international events including panel events at the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, two panel events at the World Congress on Justice With Children, and a High-level Political Forum side event. These discussions covered topics including discrimination in justice systems, the criminalization of poverty, juvenile justice, and strengthening the International Legal Aid Network (ILAN).


The intensive mentoring of lawyers is critical to ensuring quality legal aid and is core to the ILF’s approach. This year, despite the continuing pandemic, our lawyers around the world received more than 2,000 hours of mentoring from experienced criminal defense lawyers and international experts. The case-based mentoring covered novel legal issues as they emerged in changing contexts, like arguments to be made during a state of emergency and rights violations in the face of COVID-19 regulations and restrictions. Further, ILF Fellows helped introduce concepts including holistic representation, trauma-informed lawyering, and the criminalization of poverty.


In 2021, international law firms Akin Gump, Debevoise, Cravath, Gibson Dunn, Morrison & Foerster, Ropes & Gray, and Sheppard Mullin, donated more than $2 million of legal services to the ILF. These dedicated pro bono partners have helped the ILF advance human rights and tackle barriers to justice in diverse jurisdictions around the world. Our collaborations included a legislative analysis of gaps in the anti-trafficking laws in Myanmar, research on ways in which fines and fees violate constitutional rights in Nepal, an assessment of barriers to access to legal aid in Ethiopia, and assistance navigating U.S. sanctions laws so that the ILF can continue to work in Afghanistan.


We are grateful to the entire ILF community, partners, and donors who made this work possible in 2021 including MyJustice, the British Council, the European Union, UNICEF, the German Foreign Office, the Canada Fund for Local Initiatives, The United States and the American people, the OAK Foundation, Open Society Foundations, UNDP, USAID, and Chemonics.