UN Commission adopts Principles and Guidelines on Legal Aid

UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice adopts Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems in April 2012.

Legal aid is usually dealt with at national level, and there are wide differences in national law and national expenditure.

The European Union has tried to introduce European standards for criminal legal aid, but they are seen to be so controversial that they have not so far been tabled: they were separated from the ‘right to a lawyer’ proposal now being discussed, and they are being pushed into 2013.

The United Nations has however adopted new ‘UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems’. Article 16 of the basic principles says that ‘governments shall ensure that lawyers (a) are able to perform all of their professional functions without intimidation, hindrance, harassment or improper interference’ and article 23 says that ‘Lawyers like other citizens are entitled to freedom of expression, belief, association and assembly.’

Tthe provision of legal aid is not foreseen as being provided only by lawyers: ‘The first providers of legal aid are lawyers, but the principles and guidelines also suggest that states involve a wide range of stakeholders as legal aid service providers in the forms of non-governmental organisations, community-based organisations, religious and non-religious charitable organisations, professional bodies and associations and academia.’

The document is divided into principles and guidelines. Under guideline 3 (‘Other rights of persons suspected, arrested, detained, accused, charged with a criminal offence’), there is encouragement to states to introduce minimum procedural safeguards: right to information on the right to remain silent; right to be assisted by a lawyer, including during interview; right to contact with consular authorities; right to notify family; right to interpretation and translation; amongst others.

Furthermore, 'the term “legal aid” includes legal advice, assistance and representation for persons suspected, arrested, accused or charged with a criminal offence, detained and imprisoned and for victims and witnesses in the criminal justice process.'

The document was adopted at the end of April by the UN Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice. It is due to go the General Assembly in November.

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