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Supporting the Right to Counsel in International Forums

The Department, through the Access to Justice Initiative, has been working to support the right to counsel at the international level.  On December 20, 2012, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the first international document on indigent defense. The United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems is the result of a multi-year effort by the United Nations, nongovernmental organizations, and member states.  And it affirms that indigent defense “is an essential element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law.”

This document, which offers best practices in the provision of legal aid in the criminal justice context, reflects the aspirations of the ABA Ten Principles of a Public Defense Delivery System.  As a secondary source of law, much like a U.S. Restatement of the Law, it is another tool that American practitioners can use in demanding higher standards in the delivery of indigent defense.

The Department played a key role in formulating the U.S. position on the document and helped shepherd it through the formal adoption process.  This included participation in the U.S. delegation to the U.N. Crime Commission in April 2012 in Vienna, Austria, where the document began its journey to adoption by the General Assembly. Importantly, the United States was a co-sponsor of the resolution that first adopted the document in Vienna and maintained its strong and vocal support throughout the process, including through remarks made by Attorney General Holder and Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West at meetings related to the opening of the 67th Session of the United Nations General Assembly. 

While this country’s struggle with meeting its constitutional obligation to provide the right to counsel continues, the United States’ experience in this area – as well as its successes and shortcomings – can be instructive to other countries still at the beginning stages of developing their own public defender systems. The United States’ participation in international efforts not only creates opportunities to improve our own criminal justice system, but also provides opportunities to share our lessons learned. As Acting Associate Attorney General Tony West stated, “These comprehensive guidelines and principles can be effective tools in strengthening and expanding existing criminal legal aid systems throughout the world.”

The Department is participating in similar efforts at the Organization of American States (OAS).  In March 2013, the OAS’s Committee on Juridical and Political Affairs held a Special Meeting on the Exchange of Best Practices and Experiences with Public Defenders as a Guarantee of Access to Justice for Persons in Situations of Vulnerability, where the Access to Justice Initiative presented on the United States experience with indigent defense. The OAS will issue a report on best practices of member states in the coming months and the Initiative will continue to remain engaged in follow-up work on these issues.