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Adoption of the First International Principles and Guidelines on Indigent Defense

June 7, 2012
The following post appears courtesy of the Access to Justice Initiative One of the cornerstones of the United States criminal justice system is the right to legal representation for criminal defendants.  In the United States the right is confirmed by the federal Constitution, but many countries also guarantee this right to their citizens through their domestic laws.  Recognizing that criminal legal aid – or indigent defense – “is an essential element of a fair, humane and efficient criminal justice system that is based on the rule of law,” the United Nations Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice (the UN Crime Commission) adopted the first international principles and guidelines on indigent defense at its recently concluded 21st session.  The United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems affirm the importance of legal aid at all stages of the criminal justice system. Created in 1992 by the United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC), the UN Crime Commission is the central body within the United Nations system dealing with crime prevention and criminal justice policy. It is one of the governing bodies of the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC).  The 40-member body, which includes the United States, met this past April in Vienna, Austria to consider 11 resolutions on issues such as combating violence against migrants and migrant smuggling, setting minimum standards for the treatment of prisoners, and criminal legal aid. The United States was one of 16 co-sponsors of the UN Crime Commission resolution that adopted the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.  Although the document correctly recognizes that, “states employ different models for the provision of legal aid,” these comprehensive guidelines and principles can be effective tools in strengthening and growing existing criminal legal aid systems throughout the world. The creation of the Access to Justice Initiative at the U.S. Department of Justice in March 2010 is a testament of the United States’ commitment to supporting indigent defense.  The Access to Justice Initiative was launched to help ensure that basic legal services are available, affordable and accessible to everyone in this country regardless of status or income.  A significant part of our work is directed at strengthening and supporting indigent defense.  Because of this, a representative from the Access to Justice Initiative was invited to join the U.S. delegation to the UN Crime Commission to assist with negotiating this resolution. The adoption of the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems is a significant milestone in the global development of fair and just systems of criminal justice.  It will likely be submitted to the United Nations General Assembly for approval later this year. For more information about the 21st session of the UN Crime Commission, please visit the U.S. Department of State’s blog entry: Strengthening the Rule of Law and Combating Crime. For more information on the U.S. Department of Justice Access to Justice Initiative, visit:

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Updated April 7, 2017