ILF Intern Stephanie Amoako Reflects on the Johannesburg Criminal Legal Aid Conference
I am a joint degree graduate student in law and international affairs at Columbia University in New York, and I just finished my third year of a four year program. I applied for an internship with the International Legal Foundation in order to learn more about the intersections of law and development from an organization that is a global leader in developing legal aid systems. I especially appreciate how the ILF empowers local lawyers to serve their communities. Columbia Law School provides funding through the Human Rights Internship Program for students to work abroad and fortunately I was able to use that funding to travel to Johannesburg, South Africa for a month to help with the preparations of the first International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. The conference, held from 24 June to 26 June, was co-hosted by ILF, The Government of South Africa, Legal Aid South Africa, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). Participating in the conference planning and execution gave me great exposure to important issues concerning law, development, and legal aid.
One of the aims of this high-level conference was to discuss how to practically implement the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, which was adopted in December 2012 by the United Nations General Assembly and is the first international instrument on legal aid. I was thrilled to be in the company of over 265 participants from 65 countries, including attorneys general and Supreme Court justices from several countries including the Maldives, India, and Liberia. Importantly, I was able to meet ILF staff from Afghanistan, Nepal, and the West Bank. Over three days, speakers, panelists, and participants discussed important topics in sessions such as Financing Legal Systems: Cost-Effectiveness and Sustainability; Promoting Children’s Access to Legal Representation; and Monitoring and Evaluation of Criminal Legal Aid Systems: Case Administration, Data Collection, and Assessing Impact. During the conference I took copious notes for future reports on the fruitful discussions.
I gained an immense appreciation of the need for legal aid from this conference. Speakers highlighted the millions of people around the world held in pre-trial detention without representation. They highlighted how everyday people are sentenced for committing crimes when there has been no thorough investigation of the facts. They highlighted how legal aid systems are often woefully underfunded. Lack of legal representation is truly a human rights issue. Similarly, I gained an understanding of the solutions for this crisis and was exposed to the innovative strategies different countries are using to ensure access to justice. The conference was a model of international cooperation and learning with participants sharing their experiences and learning from each other. I am so glad that I was able to be a part of it.
For the month that I was working on the conference I was hosted by Legal Aid South Africa, another global leader in legal aid provision. I thoroughly enjoyed being in the company of dedicated and passionate advocates for justice. On June 19 I accompanied Impact Litigation Unit lawyers Achmed Mayet and Natasha Wagiet to the Constitutional Court to hear the verdict in Sali v. National Commissioner of the South African Police Service and Others. Justice Edwin Cameron read the verdict and afterward I was able to briefly meet with him.
Working on the conference has been a great and formative experience for me that I will take with me as I pursue a career in rule of law development. I am very grateful for my time in South Africa and I look forward to seeing the impact that the work of the conference will have on the world.