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The Government of the Republic of South Africa and Legal Aid South Africa, together with the International Legal Foundation (ILF), the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), and the United Nations Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC), and in collaboration with Open Society Justice Initiative, the University of Pretoria and the University of the Witwatersrand, will host an international conference in Johannesburg, South Africa from 24-26 June 2014 to address the global challenge of ensuring access to quality criminal legal aid services for the poor.

Despite the fact that the right to free legal assistance for criminal defendants who are unable to afford a lawyer is a widely accepted principle of law and an essential component of the right to a fair trial, all States face challenges in implementing this right.

This high-level conference will focus on developing effective strategies to meet the criminal legal aid service needs of the poor, with an emphasis on practical and achievable solutions. It will bring together a wide range of governmental, intergovernmental, and civil society actors and experts to share and build upon successful strategies for the effective delivery of criminal legal aid.

The Necessity of Legal Representation

The right to free legal assistance for criminal defendants who are unable to afford a lawyer is a widely accepted principle of law and an essential component of the right to a fair trial. It provides a foundation for a fair and effective criminal justice system. Most States have laws guaranteeing the right to free legal representation for poor persons accused of crimes, consistent with article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). Yet all States face challenges in implementing this right.

Common challenges States face in ensuring access to effective criminal legal aid services include:

  • Providing adequate support and resources to build and sustain criminal legal aid systems;
  • Guaranteeing an adequate number of lawyers or other providers, e.g., paralegals or law students, to meet the need for criminal legal aid services;
  • Ensuring the necessary training for lawyers appointed to criminal cases; and
  • Educating justice and security actors, as well as the general public, about the meaning and importance of “effective representation”.

Without access to effective legal representation, millions of poor and marginalized persons face arbitrary and extended pretrial detention, torture, coerced confessions, wrongful convictions, and other abuses. Although context-specific, these issues present themselves consistently and repeatedly in the delivery of criminal legal aid services. As noted in a report on the Socioeconomic Impact of Pre-trial Detention, published in 2011 by UNDP and the Open Society Justice Initiative, the poor are more likely to be detained pending trial and are less able to afford bail. Even if the accused is not convicted, the socioeconomic impact of pre-trial detention can have severe and lasting consequences on individuals, families and communities.

Objective of the Conference

By engaging national-level representatives, civil society members, and other experts on common challenges in providing the poor with access to effective criminal legal aid services, this conference will focus on practical and achievable solutions. In an interactive forum, conference participants will discuss effective delivery of legal aid services, including good practices, lessons learned, and the appropriate role of the international community in ensuring that the needs of the indigent accused are met. Recognizing that legal aid systems develop in context-specific ways, participants will be encouraged to learn from each other, and to use what they learn to improve their own national legal aid systems in a manner consistent with international standards and good practice.

While the conference will focus on criminal legal aid related issues, it will also provide an opportunity to address civil legal aid delivery systems, as States often look to coordinate the strategies, funding and administration of both criminal and civil legal aid.


This conference will generate outcomes that are useful and practical as national governments seek compliance with the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid. A comprehensive report of the conference will be published, providing a detailed summary of the topics covered, as well as follow-up actions proposed by individual governmental, intergovernmental, and non-governmental actors. Individual governmental and non-governmental actors will have opportunities to adopt a declaration or pledge to take action on items contained within the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid, including developing relevant legislation, committing to increase funding, or taking specific action to enable the poor to fully access their right to quality and effective legal representation in criminal cases. The conference will also encourage regional strategies or plans of action, such as the Lilongwe Declaration on Accessing Legal Aid in the Criminal Justice System in Africa. Communication networks will be established to facilitate ongoing communication and cooperation.

Event Format

To encourage productive dialogue, discussion of good practices, and action oriented outcomes, the conference will be divided into three types of sessions; panel discussions, breakout sessions and small group workshops. Materials will be distributed at the conference to help inform and guide discussions. Informal events throughout the conference will also foster dialogue and build networks for ongoing cooperation. Participants will be encouraged to develop concrete, action-oriented plans to address challenges related to the provision of criminal defense services to the poor, and to propose follow up events at the local, regional or international level.

Panel Discussions
During each panel discussion, participants will hear presentations by experts on the various topics. Panels will be moderated to stimulate debate and dialogue among participants.

Breakout Sessions
After each panel discussion, breakout sessions will be organized. They will focus on sub-themes related to the topics addressed during the relevant panel discussion. The speakers from the panel discussion will assist in leading the breakout sessions, and will be joined by additional experts on the relevant topics. The breakout sessions will allow for interactive discussions among the participants.

Small Group Workshops
The small group workshops will provide participants with the opportunity to develop specific action-oriented steps to address identified problems. Actions may include pledges by States to address a problem; agreements by organizations or individuals to take concrete action; and decisions to follow up on conference commitments at the local, regional and international level. Participants will be encouraged to use social media to keep up to date on what is happening after the conference, and to continue to exchange ideas and share information.

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