This module is a resource for lecturers  


Key issues


The  United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems  (UNPG) were adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in December 2012. Drawn from international standards and recognized good practices, they aim to provide guidance to States on the fundamental principles on which a legal aid system in criminal justice should be based and to outline the specific elements required for an effective and sustainable legal aid system. It is the first instrument dedicated exclusively to legal aid, establishing that States should consider the provision of legal aid as their responsibility and should put in place a comprehensive system that is accessible and effective, has a nationwide reach and is available to all without discrimination.

Since then, the international, regional and national focus on enhancing access to legal aid has intensified, and its importance was re-emphasized, for instance, in the Doha Declaration adopted by the 13th United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in April 2015. Later that year, the United Nations Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners were revised and adopted as the Nelson Mandela Rules , which now include several provisions addressing prisoners' access to effective legal representation and aid. Finally, the importance of access to justice for sustainable development is enshrined in Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda on Sustainable Development, adopted by Member States in September 2015: "Promote peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, provide access to justice for all and build effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels." Of particular importance in the context of legal aid is its Target 16.3: "Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels, and ensure equal access to justice for all."

The United Nations, particularly the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) as the guardian of the UN standards and norms in crime prevention and criminal justice, of which the UNPG form part, has developed a number of tools designed to aid the practical implementation of legal aid reform, including: (a) the UNODC Model Law (2017), to assist States in developing new, or reviewing existing, legal aid legislation; (b) the Global Study on Legal Aid, to provide an overview of the state of legal aid globally; and (c) the Early Access Handbook, designed as a practical guide for policymakers and practitioners on implementing the UNPG at the early stages of the criminal process.

Taking the UNPG as a guiding framework, this Module is designed to prompt critical study and understanding of the key components of the standards and norms and, using real-world examples, the mechanisms by which they may be implemented in practice - having regard to the cultures, circumstances, restraints and opportunities in different jurisdictions.

The Module adopts the definition of legal aid set out in the UNPG. It therefore covers both the right of access to a lawyer, and how the right of access to a lawyer is guaranteed. The definition of legal aid also includes the concepts of legal education, access to legal information and other services provided for persons through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice processes (See further definitions under Key terms). The Module focuses on legal aid for suspected and accused persons, and recognizes that legal aid for such persons does not, in itself, guarantee that the needs of victims of crime are taken into account (See further Module 11 - Justice for Victims).

The sections that follow explore eight sub-topics on access to legal aid. We strongly encourage lecturers to cover the foundational topics (1-4). Where time permits, lecturers may also choose to cover any or all of topics 5 to 8.

Next: Key terms
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