UN General Assembly Enacts Global Standards on Access to Legal Aid

The United Nations General Assembly has adopted the world's first international instrument dedicated to the provision of legal aid. The new UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, approved on December 20, are groundbreaking: they represent some of the most progressive principles and guidelines on legal aid, that are grounded on the emerging best practices and evolving jurisprudential and normative developments around the world. 

Significance of this instrument is tremendous. From my own personal experiences of having been closely involved in institutional legal aid reforms in the former Communist systems of Lithuania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Moldova, Ukraine, and Mongolia, as well as in Sierra Leone and Indonesia, one of the most crucial questions that all policymakers and practitioners face is how to provide publicly funded services in the most cost-efficient manner. The UN Principles and Guidelines are designed to respond to these needs, by endorsing an approach that recognises that the overwhelming majority of people who are detained and sentenced to prison are poor and vulnerable.

In many places these detainees have no effective legal representation and are as a result denied their right to a fair trial. Previously, no international standard existed that might push governments towards remedying this. Now, the new Principles and Guidelines start by stating that legal aid is an essential element of a functioning criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law, a foundation for the enjoyment of other rights, including the right to a fair trial, and an important safeguard that ensures fundamental fairness and public trust in the criminal justice process. 

The instrument also recognizes that effective legal aid schemes produce significant positive outcomes both for individuals and for the wider society by improving the performance of criminal justice personnel. They lead to more rational and effective decision-making; they increase accountability and respect for the rule of law. It sets out a framework for ensuring that a right to free legal aid is effectively implemented, in a way that is accessible, accountable and credible. 

The important components recognized include:

  • Prompt access to effective legal aid from the outset of police custody, through all stages of the criminal justice process;
  • A right to be informed about a right to legal aid and other procedural safeguards from the moment of deprivation of liberty and before any questioning, including of the right to remain silent;
  • The involvement of a range of legal aid providers including lawyers, paralegals, civil society group, and university legal clinicians and; and
  • The development of a nationwide legal aid system with designated legal aid management authorities that are sufficiently staffed and resourced and are independent from undue political pressure to ensure effective and quality legal aid services delivery.

From its origin, to its design and eventually its final adoption this instrument is a real success story for civil society: It was born out of the 2004 Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System, endorsed by a conference convened by civil society groups. But the governments of Georgia and South Africa, which initiated a resolution for adopting this instrument early this year, also did a wonderful job throughout the process that ensured success. For more details about the journey, see my earlier posting on the website of our partners, Namati.

Much work now lays ahead. States need to address issues of accessibility and quality for legal aid services for poor and vulnerable defendants. They should start with research and monitoring to identify the issues, and develop context-specific institutional solutions that ensure there are no shortcuts in guaranteeing fair trial rights, regardless of the economic status.

This new instrument is also being enacted in time as the European Commission is working on a proposal for a draft EU directive on legal aid which is expected to be published for negotiations in the second half of 2013. The text of the Principles and Guidelines is reflective of the high standards that were set by the European Union directive on a Right to Information in Criminal Proceedings which was passed in April 2012. Hopefully the new UN Principles and Guidelines on Legal Aid can serve as a model and inspiration for the planned EU directive on the matter.

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Cette résolution de l'assemblée générale sera le bienvenu au Cameroun , pays où les commissions d'office" une forme minimale de l'aide judiciaire au Cameroun, n'existe que pour les accusés susceptibles d'être condamnés à mort. Ceux-là sont très peu. Donc la grande majorité ne bénéficie d'aucune aide, ce d'autant plus que l'assistance judiciaire est devenue presque impossible selon la nouvelle loi , qui autorise aussi les auditeurs de justice( les élèves magistrats) à défendre les justiciables en présence des avocats.

Kindly assist me access justice because of the prohibitive costs of litigation in the kenyan judicial system. I suffered servitude and unfair treatment from my former employer about 8 years ago, but have not been able to access litigation/legal representation

Congrats Zaza on your important work helping to bring this to fruition.

Ability of Legal Aid System in Kosovo to provide gender responsive services increased is one of the components of the Advancing Gender Justice project (AGJ), UNDP Kosovo Office.
This component seeks to support the implementation of the Legal Aid Law and to identify all related secondary laws. The AGJ project seeks to support the Legal Aid Agency; increase legal awareness and legal literacy; to create mobile legal units in target municipalities; facilitate access to legal aid for women in prison in cooperation with the Ministry of Justice and the Kosovo Chamber of Advocates (KCA) and relevant actors.
Article 5 of Free Legal Aid Law determines the authorized services:
1. Authorized services of free legal aid shall be provided within the primary and secondary legal aid. 2. Primary legal aid includes the following services:
2.1. information and legal advices regarding the legal procedures;
2.2. drafting of paper-work and entire other technical aid that has to do with completion of the case;
2.3. representation in civil, administrative and minor offence procedure;
2.4. defense and representation in all phases of criminal procedure;
2.5. information and legal advices related to violation proceedings;
2.6. information, legal advices and aid in the mediating and arbitral procedures as foreseen by the law in force.

NGO-s are can provide legal services authorized under the criteria established by the Council on the proposal of the Director of the Agency.

Thanks a lot for sharing this.
TEK Thyro

How does this translate to reality, considering the bureaucracies that go on in government. Will there be a monitoring of observance or otherwise of standards by the relevant stakeholders, so as to ensure that access to justice is practical and feasible to a common detainee? More especially for developing nations.

Dear Barbara,

You raise an important question. Making rights real and effective is an ultimate objective in setting and advancing international human rights standards and promoting their implementation. There are many good norms and standards which go unimplemented for various reasons. But with every new international instrument or jurisprudential development we are getting closer to this objective. A right to free legal aid for indigent criminal defendants is not an exception in this regard. This right carries particular importance for ensuring fair trial as it is a foundation for enjoyment of other rights that suspects and defendants have in criminal justice systems. While the newly adopted UN Principles and Guidelines underscore importance of legal aid it also provides practical and quite detailed guidelines to policymakers and practitioners for designing and implementing cost-effective legal aid schemes. Now it would be important to raise awareness on the instrument and disseminate it widely. Furthermore, building on the UN Principles and Guidelines we are collaborating with the UNODC to develop a handbook for designing and implementing early access to legal aid schemes. Legal aid reforms have been initiated in quite few countries throughout the world in the past few years, such as Ukraine, Sierra Leone, Georgia, Indonesia, Kenya, Uganda, Moldova and Tanzania just to name few. Some of them are already being implemented while others are still in the design phase. Success of these efforts are also important in setting examples that others could emulate.


the question of the real and effective implementation is a very vital issue.. International pressure under a number of the documents is also important however on the one hand countries' main laws also ensures the availability of free legal aid and on the other hand how and who cares if one more UN document won't be implemented...

There are few countries mentioned providing certain free legal aid but the question is: are they really effective functioning under that systems?

Experience shows that there is a need for creating a unified, professional management structures to ensure evidence-based legal aid policy making and that adequate standards of quality representation are met. Most countries do not have designated and centralized institutions responsible for legal aid policymaking and implementation. The countries I have mentioned have introduced independent or quasi-independent legal aid management agencies/legal aid boards as a result of legal aid reforms. But adopting new legal aid laws and introducing new legal aid management institutions is only a beginning of a long process for making legal aid effective. Major difference is that while before it was nobody’s responsibility now there are legal aid bodies in these countries responsibilities of which are to ensure that publicly funded services are provided in most cost-efficient manner. The new UN instrument is also very important in this regard as it recognizes need for creating such institutions in the Guideline 11 section 59.

most cost-efficient should not mean lack of quality and independence and illusory and formality in legal aid. If the newly formed independent or quasi-independent legal aid agencies will again lose the public confidence and fail - How long the process towards effectiveness should be

The recognition of University Legal aid clinics as legal providers is of great importance especially for developing countries such as Nigeria where the need and demand is huge. In addition, the recognition will boost the efforts is establishing the value and usefulness of University legal clinics.

Thats an excellent point, Odinaka. Law clinics are integral to legal aid provision in 'developing' but also in the 'developed' world.

Good step! Now the task of ensuring that governments take this up as an obligation!

Ensuring that governments that take up this concept as an obligation will be another white wash considering the other many old obligations that they signed up to but are so reluctant to even implement at the lowest levels. More pressure for accountability from those in power and campaigning at grass root level could be the ultimate driver for such essential schemes in developing countries.

Thanks a Lot for Sharing

Новые принципы и руководства при оказании правовой помощи гражданам с низким материальным достатком - это хорошо!
При этом, следует привлекать к строгой ответственности государства, которые имеют зависимо ангажированные суды и чрезвычайно коррумпированных судей. Возможно, последовать принципу «Акта Магницкого»?
ЕСПЧ, в буквальном смысле завален жалобами россиян. К 2013 году - 97 500 россиян потеряли надежду на справедливость http://ivanna-greme.livejournal.com/158887.html
В этом нет вины россиян, чьи жалобы призваны ЕСПЧ «неприемлемыми». Я, имеющая большой опыт правовой защиты, ответственно заявляю: государство Россия (чиновники и судьи) сами фальсифицируют судебные на не угодных им граждан, затем с особым цинизмом провоцируют жертву на сопротивления власти. Далее, именно Россия создает эффект неприемлемости и противозаконные мероприятия с эффектом не эффективной защиты.
При этом на протяжении многих лет Верховный Суд России умышленно заводит в заблуждение международное сообщество. Степень цинизма, можно прочитать ПРИВЕТСТВУЮТ ДЫРКУ ОТ РОССИЙСКОГО БУБЛИКА http://ivanna-greme.livejournal.com/152300.html
Протокол 14 к Конвенции ЕС обязан снять проблемы жертвам России. Однако, Россия продолжает создавать россиянам условия недоступности получить услуги правосудия на основе верховенства Закона. Читайте: «Внимание! Лицам, обращавшимся в ЕСПЧ» http://ivanna-greme.livejournal.com/118402.html
Я убедительно прошу Генеральную Ассамблею Организации Объединенных Наций поднять вопрос (проанализировать) на обсуждение причин «большого количества поданных жалоб в Международный суд, как степень доверия россиян Судебной власти Российской Федерации». Например, http://ivanna-greme.livejournal.com/51708.html
С уважением, Надежда.

Please provide me with the following.
Underlying statues or regulations that mandate the payment of money for claims in recoupment – Reparations- International Law UN60/147
Regards glen

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