8 July, 2014 - Many countries still lack the necessary resources and capacity to provide legal aid for suspects, those charged with a criminal offence, prisoners, victims and witnesses. Providing adequate legal aid is key in developing a more efficient legal system. This helps make better use of limited State resources, promotes greater community involvement in the criminal justice system - including facilitating community-based sanctions and non-custodial measures -, reduces the unnecessary use of detention and imprisonment, and rationalizes criminal justice policies.
Experts from 65 countries gathered in Johannesburg from 24-26 June to discuss practical solutions for providing access to adequate legal services for disadvantaged sectors of the population. The first International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems was organized by UNODC jointly with the South African Government, Legal Aid South Africa, the International Legal Foundation, the Open Society Justice Initiative and UNDP, and focused on practical solutions to improve criminal legal aid services for the world's vulnerable groups.
A joint declaration was agreed by the participants, which stated that "without access to effective legal representation, millions of poor, vulnerable, and marginalised persons face the risk of arbitrary, extended, or illegal pretrial detention, as well as torture, coerced confessions, wrongful convictions, social stigma, detrimental impacts on health and livelihood, and other abuses."
A global legal aid study, developed to bring together experiences and best practices from experts, was launched at the Conference. The UNODC Global Study on Legal Aid, carried out jointly with UNDP, will thus be an effective way to identify priorities for technical assistance, promote collaboration among stakeholders, and provide an analysis of the best practices and lessons learned with concrete case studies. During the meeting, UNODC called on experts and Member States for input to include in the study.
A recently published handbook, entitled Early access to legal aid in criminal justice processes, was also promoted during the Johannesburg meeting, aimed at policymakers and practitioners - such as lawyers, judges, prosecutors, police officers, detention officers, civil society actors and others. This guide is designed to address the challenges that practitioners face in ensuring access to legal aid, and suggests some practical and innovative solutions using examples from different jurisdictions. Additionally, it assists Member States in implementing the international standards set by the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, approved by the General Assembly in 2012.
At the Conference, experts called on States to fully implement the provisions of the UN Principles and Guidelines, and exhorted the international community to assist by developing technical assistance tools and providing financial support. Additionally, they encouraged the delegates to the upcoming thirteenth United Nations Congress on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice, to be held in Doha in 2015, to recognize the importance of effective application of the UN Principles and Guidelines, and called on States to include the rule of law and access to justice, including equal access to legal aid, as a target of the post 2015 development agenda.