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 behind. Access 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 English, Arabic, French, Chinese, Russian, Spanish
Further publications on Access to Legal Aid, including translations into additional languages, can be found here: tools and publications