Momentum for Legal Aid Reform Builds Across Europe and Beyond
BUDAPEST—Two hundred legal professionals, rights advocates, and government figures from 40 countries gathered in Budapest this weekend to debate and promote reform of legal aid systems throughout Europe and beyond.
The Second European Access to Justice Forum on February 25-26, organized by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Public Interest Law Initiative, was supported financially by the European Union, whose draft "Framework Decision on Certain Procedural Rights in Criminal Proceedings" would be a major plank of Europe-wide reform should all member states agree.
During the past two years a number of European countries, in particular in central and eastern Europe, have undertaken to reform legal aid systems in order to effectively address the legal aid needs of vulnerable persons.
Since the First European Forum on Access to Justice in late 2002, new legal aid legislation has been adopted in Hungary, Estonia, and Lithuania, and drafted in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Latvia, Poland, and Slovakia. In Romania, legal aid laws have been amended, with further improvements under consideration. Reforms are also contemplated in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Georgia, Moldova, Serbia, and Montenegro, as well as in Chile, Kyrgyzstan, Mongolia, and Nigeria.
"Successful implementation of these new laws will depend on further efforts by governments to strengthen the institutional framework for legal aid service delivery, increase investment for long-term sustainability, and work with legal aid advocates and the bar to improve professional standards," said James A. Goldston, the Justice Initiative's executive director.
At the Hague European Council of November 2004, European Union member states confirmed they want to see a measure like the proposed framework decision introduced throughout the European Union. However, the final text has not yet been agreed.
"The rapid spread and accelerating pace of legal aid reform noticeable even in the two years since our First European Forum on Access to Justice demonstrates that legal aid reform has become a global priority," concluded Edwin Rekosh, Executive Director of the Public Interest Law Initiative. "It's time for the European Union to clarify its own minimum standards."