Vienna (Austria), 1 February 2023 — Legal aid is key to enabling equal access to justice for all, and it is at the heart of the overarching objective of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development: to leave no one behind.
The criminal justice system can seem complicated and overwhelming. Legal aid provided at no cost supports poor, disadvantaged, and marginalized populations in navigating it. Such people seldom have the means to defend their rights, when: detained, arrested, or imprisoned; suspected, accused of, or charged with a criminal offence; and as victims and witnesses.
In protecting these rights, legal aid is the foundation for the right to a fair trial. It also has an impact on families and communities, as it helps reduce the period suspects are held in detention, the number of wrongful convictions, the incidence of bribery, and justice mismanagement.
As stated by Secretary-General António Guterres at the United Nations (UN) Crime Congress in Kyoto, “people need an inclusive justice system that works for all and is intolerant of discrimination.”
This essential role was recognized by the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, developed under the auspices of the Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (CCPCJ) and adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2012.
This legal instrument, adopted ten years ago last December, has proven to be a useful and practical tool for criminal justice reform. It remains a highly relevant safeguard of essential human rights – including when applied to changing realities, as justice systems embrace the use of new technology.
The Principles and Guidelines call on Member States to put in place accessible, effective, sustainable, and credible legal aid systems, with specialized services for specific groups, and without discrimination – based, for example, on gender, race, disability, or age.
The instrument recognizes the contribution of civil society, paralegals, and academia, and its release widened the traditional definition of legal aid to include legal education, information, and services provided in restorative or transitional justice. These foci made the instrument ahead of its time.
For the past decade, the Principles and Guidelines have been an important source of guidance for experts across all regions, whether for developing legislation, building practitioners’ capacities, or putting in place mechanisms to ensure early access during investigation and pre-trial detention, as well as advocacy and legal empowerment.
Yesterday, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) held an event to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the adoption of the Principles and Guidelines, which was hosted by the chair of the CCPCJ at its thirty-second session, Ambassador Mary Mugwanja of Kenya.
The chair’s event provided Member States with an opportunity to recall the strategic importance of legal aid in harnessing criminal justice systems for sustainable development purposes, particularly for groups facing structural impediments.
Mugwanja recalled that, in the 2021 Kyoto Declaration, States endeavoured to “take measures to ensure access to legal aid for those without sufficient means or when the interests of justice so require, and raise awareness of the availability of such aid, including by promoting the practical application of relevant provisions of the Principles and Guidelines”.
In her opening remarks, UNODC Executive Director Ghada Waly reflected on the instrument’s impact. “The adoption of the UN Principles and Guidelines in 2012 was ground-breaking in guaranteeing access to justice for all. Ten years on, they remain just as relevant in protecting those who are unable to protect themselves,” she said. “UNODC, as the guardian of the principles and guidelines, remains at the forefront of efforts to assist countries in establishing stronger legal and policy frameworks worldwide.”
Juan Martín Mena, justice secretary at Argentina’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights, stated: “in a world where the poorest half of the population has 2 per cent of the total wealth, the commitment of States should be with social justice. Public policies ensuring better access to justice are tools for inclusion and effective instruments for fighting against structural inequalities.”
Panellists stressed the importance of technical assistance provided by UNODC, which works with States and stakeholders to enhance national capacities for developing legal aid systems and ensuring people-centred justice. In 2023, the Office is increasing such cooperation across all regions. UNODC will launch initiatives and tools with a particular focus on enhancing early access to legal aid in police stations, improving quality of services and legal aid assessments, and addressing discrimination and inequality.
The chair’s event, celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Adoption of the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, is the first of several multilateral events to be held throughout 2023 to discuss progress and challenges in enhancing access to justice. Others include a thematic discussion to be held during the 32nd Session of the CCPCJ, and a high-level debate on access to justice to be held at the UN General Assembly in New York City, United States.
Click here for more details on the 2030 Agenda, which was adopted in September 2015, three years after the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.
Alternatively, click here for more details on the fourteenth UN Crime Congress, at which the Kyoto Declaration was adopted.
Interested in UNODC’s work on legal aid? Click here for more details.