Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries

by The International Legal Foundation
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
Establishing Legal Aid in Post-Conflict Countries
The Pazundaung Township Magistrate Building
The Pazundaung Township Magistrate Building

 

The ILF is excited to announce the launch of a new legal aid program in Myanmar, supported by the German Foreign Office and launched with the help of our GlobalGiving donors that will provide critically needed legal aid services to poor children, women and men accused of criminal offenses. The opening of a legal aid program in Myanmar has already proven to be an important new chapter in the years-long relationship between the ILF and the Government of Myanmar. When our work in Myanmar began in 2014, we provided advice and support to the government as they drafted and adopted the country’s first legal aid law. Now, we are able to work towards our goal of ensuring every person has equal access to justice in a country where most lack the means to hire lawyers to protect their rights.

There is a critical need for criminal legal aid services in Myanmar to challenge illegal and arbitrary actions of authorities that violate the rights of the poor, such as illegal detention, torture, and the lack of access to government evidence. Since our last report, ILF-Myanmar has set up an office in Yangon, and is in the process of hiring lawyers who fill this crucial gap. This year, we will open legal aid offices in Yangon and Mandalay, and in 2018, two more offices will be opened in underrepresented states and regions of the country. In Yangon, we’ve recently met with the Pazundaung Township Magistrate to express concern over human rights violations against indigent defendants. These meetings with local courts are essential to effective advocacy on behalf of indigent Burmese who are often falsely accused and improperly tried. The ILF looks forward to providing intensive mentoring and training to Myanmar lawyers over the next few months, and starting to appear in court to ensure that all indigent accused are provided their human right to a fair trial. This work would not be possible without the generous support of our GlobalGiving donors. Your support has provided us the opportunity to access the gap between law and actual practice in Myanmar, and has laid the groundwork for this important program.

Together, we will ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable receive access to justice

Program Dir. and Sr. Lawyer with local magistrate
Program Dir. and Sr. Lawyer with local magistrate
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ILF Director Meeting with Myanmar Attorney General
ILF Director Meeting with Myanmar Attorney General

Thanks in part to the support of our GlobalGiving donors over the past three years, the International Legal Foundation is now preparing to establish a criminal legal aid program in Myanmar that will provide critically needed legal aid services to poor children, women and men accused of criminal offenses. The opening of a legal aid program in Myanmar will continue and build on a years-long relationship between the ILF and the Government of Myanmar. Since 2014, we have provided advice and support to Myanmar as they drafted and adopted the country’s first legal aid law and began to work toward its implementation.

As we begin to establish a legal aid program in Myanmar, we will continue to develop the collaborative relationships we have built with representatives of Myanmar’s government and civil society, allowing us to further impact the justice system as a whole. Throughout the project, we will work with judges, prosecutors, police, and members of civil society to share expertise and improve systems for the provision of justice, and will use a combination of training and evidence-based advocacy to build their awareness and understanding of the right to legal aid.

In a 2015 assessment conducted with support from our GlobalGiving donors, the ILF determined there was a critical need for criminal legal aid services in Myanmar to challenge illegal and arbitrary actions of authorities that violate the rights of the poor, such as illegal detention, torture, and the lack of access to government evidence. With the adoption of Myanmar’s first Legal Aid Law in January 2016, the Government of Myanmar has acknowledged its obligation to provide ‘legal aid for the right of defense and the right of appeal in criminal cases,’ laying the groundwork for true reform. However, implementation of change at the government level has been slow, and in practice few indigent people accused of crimes actually receive legal representation, while even fewer receive quality representation.

Without quality criminal defense services for the poor, each day hundreds of poor, vulnerable, and marginalized men, women, and children in Myanmar face arbitrary detention, coerced and tortured confessions, wrongful convictions, and other abuses. The ILF’s work in Myanmar will help ensure that the poorest and most vulnerable receive access to justice.

Meeting with Yangon Justice Center
Meeting with Yangon Justice Center
ILF Director Consults on 2016 Legal Aid Law
ILF Director Consults on 2016 Legal Aid Law
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Rea and lawyer Bruno Gbiegba at a Bangui court
Rea and lawyer Bruno Gbiegba at a Bangui court

In October 2016, the International Legal Foundation (ILF) conducted a two-week assessment of access to counsel in the Central African Republic, led by Natalie Rea, founder and current board member of the ILF. The Central African Republic is emerging from a crisis that began when rebels overthrew the national government in 2013. During the civil war that followed, thousands were killed, and a quarter of the population was displaced. The justice system in the Central African Republic was also decimated during the conflict. There are few functioning courts outside of the capital Bangui and few lawyers to represent the indigent accused, and detainees are kept in dilapidated buildings in crowded and insanitary conditions.

The justice system in the Central African Republic must be urgently strengthened if the country is to achieve lasting peace. The World Bank’s 2011 World Development Report identified weak institutions as the main predictor of whether violence and instability will occur or reoccur in a fragile country. When state institutions do not adequately protect citizens, provide access to justice, or guard against corruption the likelihood of violent conflict increases. A strong criminal defense bar and effective indigent defense institutions are essential components of fair and balanced criminal justice systems. Criminal defense lawyers serve as a check on the other branches of the justice system, ensuring that laws are fully and fairly implemented and that every person is afforded due process of law. They also protect the accused from arbitrary detention and other abuses, such as torture and corruption.

From October 14 to 20, Rea visited Bangui, the capitol of the Central African Republic, where she spoke with representatives of local government and civil society, of international NGOs, and of United Nations projects, including MINUSCA. She visited the city’s justice and judicial organs, held candid conversations with stakeholders, and reviewed laws relevant to the provision of legal aid.

The ILF’s forthcoming report on this assessment makes clear that while efforts have been made to strengthen access to justice, including the adoption of a new Constitution and creation of a Special Criminal Court that would try the most serious crimes, the lack of a functioning legal aid system threatens to undermine efforts at reform. Based on its assessment, the ILF is now considering ways to provide assistance in the Central African Republic as they undertake the reform of their justice system. This assessment reflects the ILF’s growing emphasis on providing expert advice and assistance to countries that are beginning to develop or improve their legal aid systems, in addition to our long-standing work in providing direct legal aid services.

Cour D'appel de Bangui(Court of Appeals of Bangui)
Cour D'appel de Bangui(Court of Appeals of Bangui)
Rea and Rufin Ndakala, Attorney General of the CAR
Rea and Rufin Ndakala, Attorney General of the CAR
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From November 15-17, 2016, the International Legal Foundation co-hosted the Second International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems in Buenos Aires, Argentina, which was also hosted by the Government of Argentina, the Office of the Federal Public Defender of Argentina, the United Nations Development Programme, and the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime.

This conference, which the ILF played a driving role in planning and implementing, had one overarching goal: to address the global crisis in access to legal aid for the poor and vulnerable. It worked to achieve this goal by bringing together over 200 legal aid service providers, civil society experts, and government officials from over 50 diverse countries around the world to discuss common challenges, good practices, and practical and achievable solutions in providing access to effective legal aid in criminal justice systems.

Two major initiatives were also launched at the conference: the world’s first International Legal Aid Network, a forum intended to inform, support, and empower legal aid providers around the world; and a campaign to address discrimination in the administration of justice.

As an organization dedicated to increasing access to justice for the most vulnerable, the ILF is deeply concerned about the discriminatory and disparate impact that criminal justice policies and practices have on poor and minority communities worldwide. To address this issue, we are teaching lawyers in post-conflict and transitional countries around the world to engage in strategic litigation. The Argentina conference helped us work toward this goal by bringing together under-resourced legal aid providers from post-conflict countries such as Myanmar, Nepal, Haiti, and Liberia with providers from more developed legal aid systems to engage in learning and exchange. We are also engaging in advocacy to bring attention to the fact that criminal justice systems worldwide are targeting communities based on their race, ethnicity, gender or because they are poor or otherwise deemed undesirable. To learn more about the ILF’s campaign, please see this short video and join the conversation.

The ILF is proud to have pioneered forums for international exchange and action on the global crisis in access to legal aid. We spearheaded the first International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, held in Johannesburg in 2014, and look forward to helping establish these conferences as a biannual event hosted by different countries. This first conference succeeded in focusing global attention at the highest levels of government on the crisis in criminal legal aid. In the wake of the conference, many participants reported that their countries began to take steps to draft and implement laws which provide for access to legal representation for the indigent accused. For example, as a direct result of the conference, a member of the bills committee of Parliament (who attended the conference along with the Attorney General and members of civil society) introduced a legal aid bill for the first time in Myanmar’s history. In early 2016, this legal aid law was adopted.

We look forward to continuing to assist countries establish effective legal aid systems following the Argentina conference, including through the launch of the International Legal Aid Network. To learn more about the Argentina conference, visit balegalaid.com, where you can watch video from the conference and access the outcome document which includes a specific call to action.

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Jennifer Smith (left) at legal aid consultation
Jennifer Smith (left) at legal aid consultation

Since 2014, the ILF has worked with the Government of Myanmar to provide advice and support as they drafted and adopted the country’s first legal aid law. In July, the ILF continued its engagement with Myanmar when the ILF’s Executive Director consulted with the Supreme Court of the Union of Myanmar on the establishment of Myanmar’s new legal aid system under that law.

The law, which aims to establish Myanmar’s first state-sponsored legal aid system and expand the right to counsel, was drafted by members of Myanmar’s Parliament who participated in the first International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems. This conference was held in Johannesburg, South Africa in 2014, and was co-hosted by the ILF. After the conference, members of Myanmar’s government and civil society reached out to the ILF for assistance in ensuring access to legal aid in Myanmar, including assistance with the draft legal aid bill.

Throughout 2015, the ILF met with members of Myanmar’s Parliament to advise them on the draft legal aid bill, which was adopted as law in January 2016. Under the new law, the Supreme Court will oversee a new Union Legal Aid Board, which will be responsible for administering legal aid.

This past July, the ILF’s executive director Jennifer Smith visited Myanmar again to continue the ILF’s engagement with the Government of Myanmar and to support their adoption of this historic piece of legislation. She participated in a consultation session with the Supreme Court of the Union of Myanmar and other governmental and civil society stakeholders on how to implement the legal aid law effectively.

During this consultation, Ms. Smith drew upon the ILF’s extensive experience setting up legal aid systems in post-conflict and transitional countries. She advised the Supreme Court on policies and strategies that would ensure that the indigent accused can receive access to quality, effective legal representation. These policies include appointment mechanisms that provide for access to legal aid at the time of arrest; eligibility requirements that won’t restrict the poor’s access to counsel; and qualification standards and monitoring and evaluation systems that can ensure the quality of legal aid services provided to the poor. She also provided participants with an overview of legal aid delivery systems used worldwide.

The consultation concluded with a meeting with the Supreme Court’s legal aid process implementation working group, tasked with implementing the new legal aid law. At the meeting, the ILF and other experts provided recommendations for establishing a pilot legal aid program, set out a timeline of specific action items, and agreed to provide continuing support and assistance. The ILF looks forward to continuing to support the development of legal aid in Myanmar over the next months and years.

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Organization Information

The International Legal Foundation

Location: New York, NY - USA
Website:
Facebook: Facebook Page
Twitter: @theilf
The International Legal Foundation
Jennifer Smith
Project Leader:
Jennifer Smith
New York, NY United States

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