UNODC, UNDP & partners mitigate the impact of COVID-19 through access to legal aid

© UN Photo/Harandane Dicko

Rio de Janeiro (Brazil), 25 September 2020 – COVID-19 has had an unprecedented impact on criminal justice systems around the world, hindering access to justice and putting a spotlight on vulnerable groups who already endured a higher risk of human rights violations before the pandemic: suspects, accused, detainees, prisoners, as well as victims of crime.

The legal aid offered through the programmes led by UNODC and partners such as UNDP, makes a crucial difference in the lives of persons, enabling them to navigate the criminal justice system that is often complicated and overwhelming. Moreover, access to legal aid also has a positive impact on families and the wider community; as it helps reduce time spent in detention and prevents justice mismanagement. Indeed, these crucial effects gained a whole new meaning in 2020, with justice systems and prison management authorities facing tremendous challenges brought on by the global pandemic.

From 14-18 September 2020, the 4th International Conference on Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (ILAC) brought together more than 800 legal aid policy makers and practitioners from 89 countries –among them legal aid lawyers, community-based paralegals,  as well as experts from academia, civil society, ministries, the judiciary, and public prosecutions services– who discussed how legal aid can help combat the inequalities intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Founded in 2014 to support experts in implementing the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, that call on every State to put in place a legal aid system that is accessible to all without discrimination. The 2020 edition of ILAC was hosted by the Public Defender’s Office of the State of Rio de Janeiro, in partnership with UNODC, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the International Legal Foundation (ILF), and the Open Society Justice Initiative (OSJI).

Elena Abbati, Country Director of UNODC’s Liaison and Partnership Office in Brazil, highlighted in her welcoming address that efforts are being made across the world to ensure equal access to fair and effective justice and social protection services –including adopting strategies to reduce the risks of COVID-19 in overcrowded detention centres– and to prevent violation of the rights of the vulnerable.

As a concrete example in Brazil, Ms. Abbati noted the work of UNODC currently underway in the scope of the programme Justiça Presente, which is being implemented in partnership with the National Justice Council (CNJ) and UNDP. In this initiative, UNODC acts in pre-trial detention hearings throughout the 27 Brazilian states to tackle prison overcrowding; directly working with judges, prosecutors, public defenders, social protection personnel, and police. Through this, UNODC contributes to the promotion of a gradual shift away from imprisonment as the main tool for controlling and addressing crime.

Throughout the week, experts shared knowledge and ideas on what legal aid providers can do to support communities and combat systemic discrimination, and agreed that the need to expand access to justice as enshrined in Sustainable Development Goal 16 was more urgent than ever.

In this context, several UNODC partners provided insights from across the globe. One of them was Ms. Chinelo Elizabeth Uchendu, lawyer and ​National Coordinator of the Legal Advocacy and Response to Drugs Initiative (LARDI) in Nigeria, a network of 121 lawyers and legal practitioners established by UNODC, which provides pro-bono legal services to arrestees for drug-related offences, drug users and their families. She highlighted that suspects and defendants were bearing the greatest brunt of the pandemic, being denied access to their lawyers and families, often detained in holding cells for extended periods of time as prisons were not admitting new inmates; while expressing that to provide meaningful support, lawyers had to be creative and persistent to drive positive change.

Another UNODC partner, Sabrina Mahtani, Co-Founder and Board Member of AdvocAid Sierra Leone –which, among other activities, provides free legal aid for women and girls in conflict with the law in Sierra Leone– stressed the need to strengthen legal empowerment of women and girls. To address gender-based discrimination both in criminal justice systems and within detention facilities, she recommended sharing stories of women impacted by the justice system with policy makers, to both raise awareness and encourage political engagement.

A variety of panels targeting experiences in different regions of the world engaged the global audience present at this event. The  lively discussions held in the forums evolved into consensus among the participants; that joint efforts and global collaboration remained key in moving forward, as was adopting an even more people-centered approach in delivering services and advocating for long-term change and reforms.