Development and legal experts call for increased provision of legal aid for the poor

14 Jul 2014

imageUNDP-sponsored provision of legal aid for women in Somalia

Access to legal aid for the poor and marginalized is crucial to addressing inequalities and human rights issues, legal experts and staff from United Nations agencies said at the close of a large international conference in Johannesburg.

Stressing that lack of access to legal aid is keeping people in poverty and hampering development across the world, participants urged countries to implement the first international instrument to deal with legal aid, issued by the UN in 2012.

The document recognizes that legal aid is essential to a fair, and effective justice system and the foundation for many human rights, and critical to ensure public trust in governance institutions.

With over 250 participants from 65 countries around the world, the event was jointly organized by UNDP with the Government of South Africa, Legal Aid South Africa, the International Legal Foundation, and UNODC.

 “We know that there are many countries which, like South Africa, are still beset by indigence and low - income earning,” said Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng of South Africa. “We however urge them to embrace these guidelines and do whatever their national purse permits, to create a sustainable legal aid system,” he added.

The conference showcased a number of success stories from Africa including South Africa. In Malawi, Uganda and Zambia where there are very few lawyers, community-based paralegals and university clinics help provide access to justice in rural and remote areas.

In countries emerging from conflict, such as Sierra Leone, legal aid has  been critical to redress past abuses. For many women and girls, legal aid helps tackle sexual and gender-based violence, secure land and inheritance rights, and ensure fair decisions in family matters.

UNDP is active in these efforts. In 2013, UNDP supported 55 countries worldwide in strengthening access to legal aid services for poor and marginalized groups. In Africa alone, UNDP supports countries, through legal awareness clinics, public outreach campaigns and building the capacities of national institutions to deliver legal aid services in civil, criminal and family matters.

Beyond legal aid for criminal cases, explored at the conference, participants called for increased attention to legal aid for all legal challenges facing the poor and their interaction with traditional and informal justice systems – which are critical to poverty reduction and addressing inequality, especially in the region.

The conference also launched the UNDP-UNODC handbook on Early Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, published in earlier this year.