Access to Legal Aid

Access to justice features prominently in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, whose Target 16.3 of Goal 16 is about promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensuring equal access to justice for all. This is particularly important when a person's fundamental rights to life and liberty are put at risk. The first principle of the 1990 Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers states that: "All persons are entitled to call upon the assistance of a lawyer of their choice to protect and establish their rights and to defend them in all stages of criminal proceedings." The Basic Principles further place responsibility upon the government and the legal profession to ensure that everyone has access to counsel, regardless of means or background, to protect the right to equality before the law.

Legal aid is a key element of access to justice. It is also at the heart of the equality requirement and of the overarching objective of the 2030 Agenda: to leave no one behindAccess to legal aid translates into access to justice for the poor, the marginalized, and the disadvantaged. Provided at no cost, it protects those who do not have the means to defend their rights in the criminal justice system: the detained, arrested or imprisoned; those suspected, accused of, or charged with a criminal offence; and victims and witnesses. Legal aid helps these persons navigate the justice system, which can be complicated and overwhelming. It has an impact on families and communities, as it helps to reduce the length of time suspects are held in detention, the number of wrongful convictions, the incidence of bribery and justice mismanagement, and the rates of reoffending and revictimization. In times of crisis, access to legal aid is crucial to protect people’s rights, to help them access essential services and to ensure that States’ enforcement of emergency measures respects international human rights standards. 

The important role of legal aid was recognized by the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, adopted by the General Assembly in 2012, that made it an obligation for Member States to put in place accessible, effective, sustainable and credible legal aid systems, with specialized services for groups, particularly children and women . Legal aid includes “legal advice, assistance and representation […] that is provided at no cost for those without sufficient means or when the interests of justice so require”, as well as legal education, access to legal information and services provided through alternative dispute resolution mechanisms and restorative justice processes. The UN Principles and Guidelines also recognize the contribution of providers such as paralegals, law students, and civil society organizations.

The instrument can be accessed here: United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems  EnglishArabicFrenchChineseRussianSpanish

United Nations Resolutions on Access to Legal Aid

Our Services

  • Promoting cross-regional experience exchange among experts from governments, academia, civil society and the private sector through organizing conferences, seminars, and trainings and development of guidance materials;
  • Assessing legal aid systems and assisting governments in enhancing access to legal aid at all stages of the criminal justice process through legal and policy advice, and development of action plans;
  • Building the capacity of institutions and individual service providers through training and advice, and supporting providers in developing specialized services, including for women, children and victims of crime;
  • Supporting legal empowerment, including through legal information activities;


Further publications on Access to Legal Aid, including translations into additional languages, can be found here: tools and publications

Handbook on Ensuring Quality of Legal Aid Services in Criminal Justice Processes: Practical Guidance and Promising Practices
Handbook on Early Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Processes: a handbook for Policymakers and Practitioners
Model Law on Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems with Commentaries

Our Work

  • UNODC, UN Women and OHCHR are improving access to legal aid for women in West Africa under a joint project funded by the UN Development Account. 
  • UNODC’s Global Prison Challenges Programme is addressing the scope of imprisonment to reduce prison overcrowding and enhancing access to legal advice, assistance and representation through legal aid for suspects, accused and sentenced prisoners.  
  • UNODC is promoting capacity building and experience exchange among experts from all over the world through cross-regional seminars and training workshops, with a focus on Africa and Asia
  • The project Promoting the Rule of Law and Governance In the Criminal Justice System in Liberia was the first UNODC project to support public defenders with the aim of ensuring human rights of suspects and accused. In this video, the first female public defender in Liberia, Atty. Edwina Edjerah Barchue, talks about the importance of her work as a public defender and how the project assisted public defenders. 

Learn More

  • All over the world, projects emerged that successfully tackle quality of legal aid services from different angles. Learn how to help remove barriers for vulnerable groups in accessing justice and support States and lawyers in the difficult task to enhance quality of legal aid services by reading UNODC’s new practical guidance handbook. As Miwa Kato, Director of the UNODC Division for Operations, stressed during its launch event, "Irrespective of how great the need is among the population, how developed a legal aid system is or how many lawyers it can fund - if services fulfill quality standards, then even a small number of providers can make an enormous difference in people's lives."
  • Learn more about Ensuring Access to Justice in the Context of COVID-19 through the guidance note issued by UNODC and UNDP that presents key issues to consider and highlights critical elements for the justice sector to respond effectively to the short, medium, and long-term impacts of the pandemic. In a joint webinar, 240 United Nations staff to discuss how to assist countries in ensuring measures do not hinder access to justice and do not impede Goal 16 of the Sustainable Development Goals.