Photo: Vladimir Valishvili/UNDP

Dear Mr. First Deputy Minister of Justice

Mr. Speaker of the Parliament

Ministers

Excellencies

Distinguished guests

 

  • On behalf of the United Nations Development Programme and the entire UN family in Georgia, it’s a true honor to welcome you all here today.

 

  • Let me at the outset thank the Parliament of Georgia and the Georgian Legal Aid Service for undertaking to host this, the Third International Conference on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems.
 
  • After similar events in Johannesburg in 2014 and Buenos Ares in 2016, we’re very proud to welcome 300 participants from 67 different countries here in Tbilisi.

 

  • Owing to the diversity of legal aid systems around the world, our distinguished audience today includes Ministers of Justice and other government officials; members of parliament; prosecutors, judges and attorneys; representatives of legal aid organisations; civil society activists; development partners; and experts

 

  • We hope you will enjoy your time in Tbilisi and have an opportunity alongside the conference to experience this country’s unique hospitality.

 

  • As our diverse guest list suggests, the specific forms in which legal aid is provided vary widely, and sharing experience is one of the main aims of this conference.

 

  • What unites us all is our shared conviction that legal aid is a human right.

 

  • The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that, “Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to … all the guarantees necessary for his defence.”

 

  • The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, adopted in 1966, reiterates this principle, stating that anyone facing criminal charges has the right “to have legal assistance assigned to him … and without payment by him … if he does not have sufficient means to pay for it.”

 

  • These commitments have helped to spur the expansion of legal aid worldwide over the past 50 years, and we now see legal aid systems emerging even in very difficult terrain.

 

  • For example, a Legal Aid Grant Facility now operates in eight provinces of Afghanistan; Socio-Legal Aid Centers have been established in 10 districts in Nepal; and in Tajikistan, a state-led legal aid system is now being designed.

 

  • Unfortunately, however, legal aid is often more available in theory than it is in practice. Financial resources often fall short, and, as a rule, the poor and marginalized face disproportionately high rates of detention, conviction and incarceration.

 

  • They also make up the majority of the scandalously high share of 31 percent of prisoners who are currently in detention without having been sentenced for a crime.

 

  • Numbers like these show we are falling short on our commitment to equality.

 

  • Happily, the quest to make accessible legal aid a reality rather than an abstract right has been given a major boost by the Sustainable Development Goals, which reflect the world’s shared determination to “leave no one behind.”

 

  • Goal #16 mandates all countries “to ensure equal access to justice for all,” and at the UN we are confident that Agenda 2030 will put new wind in our sails.  

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

 

  • It’s no accident that Georgia is hosting this event as the first of its kind in Europe.

 

  • The country first undertook to create a legal aid service back in 2005.

 

  • The Government was a strong supporter of the standardized principles and guidelines for legal aid that were adopted by the UN General Assembly in 2012.

 

  • Over the past 13 years, legal aid has evolved here from a subdivision of the Justice Ministry into an independent institution accountable solely to the Parliament.

 

  • Originally established to provide legal representation to socially vulnerable clients in criminal cases, it has since expanded to cover many civil and administrative cases as well as labor disputes in both public and private sectors.

 

  • For many crimes, the system provides free legal aid on a mandatory basis to defendants, regardless of their financial status.

 

  • It also offers legal assistance to vulnerable individuals such as survivors of domestic violence, again regardless of the victim’s financial circumstances.

 

  • The system has extended its reach outside the capital by establishing 12 bureaus and seven consultation centers all across Georgia, and earlier this year it put into operation a centralized call centre to provide legal advice by telephone.

 

  • The results are impressive, with client numbers growing every year.

 

  • So far, the system has served more than 93,000 defendants in criminal cases and provided legal advice to more than 150,000 citizens.

 

  • More than 30,000 clients were served in the past year alone.

 

  • Notably, the Legal Aid Service has taken pains to ensure that children who come into contact with the legal system receive custom-tailored support, for example through the creation of child-friendly interview spaces. And specially trained lawyers have so far represented 5,200 juveniles in criminal proceedings.

 

  • These statistics show that the system is working: legal aid lawyers are involved in 40 percent of all criminal trials and account for 20-25 percent of all acquittals.

 

  • The UN family has been proud to support the development of the Georgian Legal Aid Service from the very beginning, and we thank our many partners, who include the European Union, the Council of Europe and USAID, as well as the International Legal Foundation and the Open Society Justice Initiative.

 

  • As you can see, there is a lot to learn from Georgia’s experience.

 

  • But there are as many success stories represented here as there are outstanding challenges, and we know that everyone still has a lot to learn.

 

  • We look forward to lively discussion over the coming three days, as you devote your energy to ten plenary, six parallel and 18 breakout sessions.

 

  • And, at the close of the conference, we count on your collective adoption of a robust “Tbilisi Declaration” that will ground the continuing expansion of legal aid on the firm foundations of the Sustainable Development Goals.

 

  • Be assured that UNDP, UNODC, UNICEF and the entire UN family will provide continuing support in this effort, at national, regional and global levels, as we work with you to achieve our shared goal of equal access to justice for all.

 

  • Thank you for your attention, your participation and above all your commitment.
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