Access to justice is a basic principle of the rule of law. In the absence of access to justice, people are unable to have their voice heard, exercise their rights, challenge discrimination or hold decision-makers accountable. The Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law emphasizes the right of equal access to justice for all, including members of vulnerable groups, and reaffirmed the commitment of Member States to taking all necessary steps to provide fair, transparent, effective, non-discriminatory and accountable services that promote access to justice for all [para. 14 and 15]. United Nations activities in support of Member States’ efforts to ensure access to justice are a core component of the work in the area of rule of law.
Delivery of justice should be impartial and non-discriminatory. In the Declaration of the High-Level Meeting on the Rule of Law, Member States highlighted the independence of the judicial system, together with its impartiality and integrity, as an essential prerequisite for upholding the rule of law and ensuring that there is no discrimination in the administration of justice [para. 13]
In strengthening access to justice, the UN system works with national partners to develop national strategic plans and programmes for justice reform and service delivery. UN entities support Member States in strengthening justice in areas including: monitoring and evaluation; empowering the poor and marginalized to seek response and remedies for injustice; improving legal protection, legal awareness, and legal aid; civil society and parliamentary oversight; addressing challenges in the justice sector such as police brutality, inhumane prison conditions, lengthy pre-trial detention, and impunity for perpetrators of sexual and gender-based violence and other serious conflict-related crimes; and strengthening linkages between formal and informal structures.
One of the major obstacles in accessing justice is the cost of legal advice and representation. Legal aid programmes are a central component of strategies to enhance access to justice. The Declaration of the High-level Meeting on the Rule of Law committed Member States to take all necessary steps to provide fair, transparent, effective, non-discriminatory and accountable services that promote access to justice for all, including legal aid [para. 12 and 14]. In December 2012, the General Assembly unanimously adopted the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (67/187), the first international instrument on the right to legal aid. The UN Principles and Guidelines establish minimum standards for the right to legal aid in criminal justice systems and provide practical guidance on how to ensure access to effective criminal legal aid services.
The United Nations assists in the development and reform of national policies and frameworks on legal aid, and supports capacity building of state and non-state actors who provide legal aid services in civil, criminal and family matters. The United Nations system also supports the provision of legal aid by strengthening capacities of rights holders, enhancing legal aid programmes empowering rights holders, particularly the poor and marginalized groups, and supporting legal awareness and legal aid clinics and public outreach campaigns. In order to further contribute to the global knowledge base on legal aid, the UN system has launched a Global Study on Legal Aid, to gather data on the current state of access to legal aid services worldwide.