07 May 2012 - In justice matters, access to legal aid can tip the balance significantly; in some cases it can be a matter of life and death. Every person going though a criminal trial - not only the accused but also victims of crime - needs access to legal information and legal assistance in order to know and attain his or her rights.
Recognizing this, the just-concluded twenty-first session of United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopted the first international instrument exclusively dedicated to legal aid: the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, which will be submitted to the General Assembly later this year for approval.
The Commission recognized that legal aid is an essential element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law. It is the foundation for the enjoyment of other rights, including the right to a fair trial, and an important safeguard that ensures fundamental fairness and public trust in the criminal justice process.
The United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems are aimed at ensuring that suspects, detainees, and accused and imprisoned persons have access to legal aid. The efficient provision of legal aid is also central to reducing pretrial detention, safeguarding the rights of victims, guaranteeing the best interests of children who come into contact with the criminal justice system and ensuring access to justice for the most vulnerable and marginalized groups.
The guidelines establish that States should consider the provision of legal aid as their responsibility and should put in place a comprehensive legal aid system that is accessible and effective, has a nationwide reach and is available to all without discrimination.
UNODC is also working to assist Member States in meeting their responsibilities in the provision of legal aid. In 2006, UNODC published a criminal justice assessment toolkit, entitled " Access to justice: legal defence and legal aid", which gives guidance on how to assess the provision of legal representation to people being investigated for or charged with a criminal offence, with a particular focus on providing these services to the poor.