Remarks Delivered by Ambassador Laura S.H. Holgate
Vienna, Austria, January 31, 2023
Thank you, Chair.
I am honored to join you today to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. The remarks today have already been thought-provoking, and I hope we can continue this important discussion when we meet again at the 32nd Commission on Crime Prevention and Criminal Justice in May.
In December 2012, the UN Principles and Guidelines recognized the important role of legal aid by obligating Member States to put in place accessible, effective, sustainable, and credible legal aid systems, with specialized services for vulnerable groups, particularly children and women. In the ten years since then, Member States around the world have recognized this basic right to legal aid and the right to be informed about legal aid as global norms and protections we all must work to uphold. The United States has worked to align its own legal aid reform at home, as well as its technical assistance abroad, with the Principles and Guidelines.
As U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland recently said, “There can be no equal justice without equal access to justice. And because we do not yet have equal access to justice in America, the task before us is urgent.”
That sense of urgency has pushed our federal government, as well as local and state institutions and civil society organizations, to take serious steps in line with the Principles and Guidelines. Those steps included developing meaningful performance standards for indigent defense providers, encouraging adequate funding and resources for indigent defense services, and strengthening access to counsel at first appearance in court and in the pretrial stage.
In May 2021, President Biden issued a memorandum to restore the Department of Justice’s Access to Justice function and reinvigorate the White House Legal Aid Interagency Roundtable.
While challenges remain, this progress is especially important to recognize this year, which marks the 60th anniversary of the landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision in Gideon v. Wainwright, which held that the assistance of counsel is a fundamental right essential to fairness and due process in criminal proceedings.
Legal aid is particularly critical for the most vulnerable in our societies, including underserved and marginalized communities such as women and girls of color, LGBTQI+ persons, persons with disabilities, and persons affected by persistent poverty. Taking a closer look at gender, UNODC’s recently published 2023 Global Report on Trafficking in Persons revealed that women investigated for trafficking in persons were significantly more likely to be convicted than men. Were many of these women also victims of human trafficking, coerced into recruiting other women? Would the statistics be different if these women had access to legal aid and were treated in a victim-centered and trauma-informed manner?
Along these lines, the U.S. government recently updated its Strategy to Prevent and Respond to Gender-Based Violence Globally. It calls on U.S. agencies to promote fair, equitable, accessible, and inclusive justice systems that increase survivors’ access to justice, including redress and protection related to gender-based violence and access to legal representation. It charges us to encourage reform of discriminatory standards across justice systems, including gender bias in the law enforcement and justice sectors; train judges, defense lawyers, and prosecutors on gender-based violence and trauma- informed approaches; and raise awareness of case law, changes in the law, and disposition of cases.
As we work to improve our own policies and procedures to guarantee equal access to justice, we are also strongly supporting the UN’s work to expand legal aid around the world. Such efforts not only strengthen policy and practices in the United States, but also reinforce globally recognized norms and values to which all UN Member States should aspire. We have incorporated the UN Principles and Guidelines into the criminal justice sector assistance we provide. For instance, in Ghana, the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs supports a U.S. Resident Legal Advisor to work with the Attorney General’s Office and the Legal Aid Commission to promote plea bargaining and alternatives to incarceration. In Pakistan, U.S. assistance supports professional development opportunities for judges on alternative dispute resolution and modern judicial processes.
For many years, the United States has also provided assistance to Ukraine to strengthen its legal aid system. Unfortunately, Russia’s unprovoked full-scale war against Ukraine has disrupted these programs and has made it difficult for Ukrainian citizens to access the basic protections they deserve. Prior to Russia’s invasion, the United States was supporting civil society organizations to raise awareness about citizens’ constitutional right to legal aid and the availability of legal services through Free Legal Aid Centers around the country. These legal aid services remain as important today as ever, as the people of Ukraine demand and deserve justice.
Chair, these are just some of our many efforts to incorporate the UN Principles and Guidelines in our work at home and abroad. We are committed to working with the UN and its Member States to continue to advance progress in this vital area.