The problems of excessive and arbitrary pre-trial detention and inadequate legal aid for indigent criminal defendants are among the most serious issues undermining confidence in criminal justice systems worldwide. In that regard, the new Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems adopted by the United Nations (UN) Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice during its 21st session in Vienna, Austria (23-27 April 2012) is a move welcomed by CHRI. This is the first international instrument on legal aid which addresses the rights of the poor and marginalized and entrenches elements of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system. The resolution will be adopted by the UN General Assembly in Dec 2012.
The Principles and Guidelines do not endorse any specific model for States to follow but encourage states, particularly where population is over ten million and there is a significant shortage of lawyers, based on international good practices, to guarantee a basic right to legal aid towards effective national legal aid systems for the benefit of the poor, arrested, detained or accused, victims, and groups with special needs such as women, children, stateless people, mentally ill, isolated groups, and others who require 'additional protection' when they come into contact with the criminal justice system.
The Principles and Guidelines are based on recognition that States should undertake substantial measures to diversify delivery schemes from police station to court, using both state actors in-charge of detention centers, non-state community based actors, and a rotary of lawyers from the legal aid institutions, bar councils and para-legals.
They recommend the practice of providing early information on the right to legal aid, non-discrimination and equity in access, remedies and safeguards, as well as improving the competencies of legal aid providers to maximize positive impact that the establishment and reinforcement of legal aid may have on the functioning of the criminal justice system.
Establishment of national effective legal aid schemes are crucial as they can create a positive impact on reducing pre-trial detention, improving performances of criminal justice personnel and lead towards effective decision making, accountability and respect for the rule of law.
It is critical that States where there is limited access to legal aid develop and adopt nation-wide legal aid schemes, and states which already have put systems in place, such as India, improve their accountability and efficiency and quality. The UN agencies, civil society actors and national organizations need to provide support for countries attempting to develop legal-aid practices and monitor developments.
Note: The Principles and Guidelines were sponsored by Cameroon, Canada, Croatia, Chile, Denmark (for the European Union), Georgia, Germany, Israel, Mexico, Namibia, Nigeria, Norway, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, South Africa (for the African Group) and the United States of America which highlighted their commitment to legal aid through national systems and through efforts to exchange an improve international standards. [Back]