VIENNA, JUNE 3 – One of the greatest challenges that poor and vulnerable groups across the world face in accessing justice is a lack of confidence in the quality of legal aid services. To support States and lawyers in the difficult task of enhancing the quality of these services, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched the Handbook on Ensuring Quality of Legal Aid Services in Criminal Justice Processes: Practical Guidance and Promising Practices at a side event at the 28th Crime Commission.
Equal access to justice for all features prominently in Goal 16 of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and Legal aid is at the heart of the equality requirement and 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.
Ensuring truly equal access to justice requires legal support at no cost for those who do not have the means to protect and defend their rights in the criminal justice system: the detained, arrested or imprisoned, and also the victims and witnesses. In supporting beneficiaries in navigating a system that can be complicated and overwhelming, the work of legal aid providers also has an impact on their families and communities, as it helps reduce the length of time suspects are held in detention, the number of wrongful convictions, the incidence of torture, bribery and justice mismanagement, and ultimately the rates of reoffending and revictimization.
In recent years, projects that successfully tackle quality of legal aid services from different angles have emerged all over the world, trying to focus on local needs. As Miwa Kato, Director of the UNODC Division for Operations, stressed in her opening remarks, “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.”
Developed with financial support of China and with contributions of more than 50 experts from all regions including partners from UN entities, the new UNODC Handbook serves as a guide for policymakers and practitioners for planning and implementing measures to ensure, monitor and constantly improve the quality of criminal legal aid services, and for building the capacity of UN staff in the field to assist national partners. It contains examples from across the world, focusing on the overall legal aid system as well as the individual service providers.
Speakers at the side event highlighted good practices covered by the Handbook and discussed the importance of taking a client-centered approach and of tools for evaluating and improving the work of lawyers. Sharing of experiences indeed remains crucial for measures to be successful and sustainable, and as one expert notes: “No legal system has found the ‘best’ model yet, but all strive to achieve having a positive impact on the lives of as many people as possible.” (@OnuItalia)