Interactive Dialogue with the Special Rapporteur on the
Independence of Judges and Lawyers, Gabriela Knaul
UN Human Rights Council – 23rd Session
May 28, 2014
Thank you Mr. President.
The United States thanks the Special Rapporteur, Gabriela Knaul, for her latest report to the Council, with its focus on the important role that legal aid can play in achieving equal justice under law. We view legal aid as an extremely important measure that States can take to ensure that the justice system is responsive not just to the needs of the elite, but also to the needs of the poor and society at large.
We agree that denials of access to justice can effectively impoverish the enjoyment of a number of human rights, including the rights to a fair trial and to an effective remedy. Therefore, we support the various, proactive measures that many governments, including the United States, take to provide legal aid as an essential procedural tool to realize such rights. We believe that the ICCPR requires States parties to guarantee the right to counsel in criminal cases, and we agree that, per paragraph 93 of the Report, States should consider enacting specific legislation to establish a comprehensive legal aid system in civil cases.
This year we celebrate the 50th anniversary of the landmark case of Gideon versus Wainright, in which the U.S. Supreme Court held that our Constitution guarantees free legal counsel in criminal cases. This is supplemented in civil cases by a robust network of public interest law firms, community legal clinics, legal aid clinics within university law schools, and pro bono lawyers. Additionally, for more than three decades now the Legal Services Corporation has provided federal funding for civil legal aid services to those Americans unable to afford legal counsel.
Internationally, we are a strong supporter of the UN Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, which is hosted by the UN Development Programme, and similar programs. We remain a strong supporter of the recently adopted United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems – adopted by the General Assembly in December 2012. And we support and participate in efforts at the Organization of American States on the Exchange of Best Practices and Experiences with Public Defenders as a Guarantee of Access to Justice for Persons in Situations of Vulnerability.
I would also like to take this opportunity to support calls for an investigation by independent, international observers into the deaths of Cuban democracy activists Oswaldo Paya and Harold Cepero. Their families and all Cubans deserve a credible account of the circumstances leading to their deaths. We will continue to advocate for the right of all Cubans to speak out for human rights and democracy.
We also have questions for the Special Rapporteur: What does the Special Rapporteur understand to be the greatest barriers to the establishment of effective legal aid services? In other words, where there exists the political will to support such programs, what are some of the most salient factors that keep them from being realized?