Open Society Justice Initiative

The Open Society Justice Initiative uses law to protect and empower people around the world. Through litigation, advocacy, research, and technical assistance, the Justice Initiative promotes human rights and builds legal capacity for open societies. We foster accountability for international crimes, combat racial discrimination and statelessness, support criminal justice reform, address abuses related to national security and counterterrorism, expand freedom of information and expression, and stem corruption linked to the exploitation of natural resources. Our staff are based in Abuja, Amsterdam, Bishkek, Brussels, Budapest, Freetown, The Hague, London, Mexico City, New York, Paris, Phnom Penh, Santo Domingo and Washington, D.C.

Justice Initiative's work to promote legal aid reforms aims to ensure that governments' obligation under international law to provide timely and effective free legal aid for indigent criminal defendants is implemented in practice.  An overwhelming majority of criminal defendants around the world are too poor to afford legal counsel. Yet state-funded legal services are either non-existent or severely limited in scope, funding, and quality. All too often, the outcomes of criminal proceedings-guilt or innocence, freedom or detention-hinge arbitrarily on defendants' wealth.

The right to legal advice and representation is fundamental in the criminal justice process. Without a lawyer or representative, an accused person is less likely to be aware of his rights and options. Without an effective advocate, defendants are more likely to face extended pretrial detention, abuse, torture, extortion or other forms of mistreatment.

The Open Society Justice Initiative works to ensure that all criminal defendants around the world have equal access to good quality legal representation and a fair trial. It advocates for comprehensive national legal aid reform, so that accused people can access basic legal advice and information, regardless of their social or financial status.  While governments are responsible for providing free and effective legal assistance to poor criminal defendants in accordance with international human rights standards, policies are often improvised, ill-conceived, or poorly administered. Legal aid for criminal defendants is frequently overlooked by donors as well.

To address these challenges, the Justice Initiative has helped establish and monitor public defender offices, introduce police station legal advise, set up criminal defense student law clinics at universities, and pilot paralegal programs. The project works closely with governments interested in developing effective national legal aid systems aimed at establishment of professional unified national management structures responsibility of which are to ensure that access to free legal aid and standards of quality representation are met in practice for all those who need it:  such structures wherever they exist are responsible for assessing legal aid needs, monitoring access and quality, determine legal aid budget and administer spending.  The Justice Initiative advocates for improved international standards to ensure that defendants have access to counsel or a representative from the outset of police custody, implemented nationally by developing police station advice schemes.

The Justice Initiative pioneered innovative approaches to legal aid in Eastern Europe and Central Asia, helping achieve significant reform in Bulgaria, Ukraine, Moldova, Lithuania, Georgia, and Mongolia. The project has since expanded to countries including Turkey, Nigeria, Indonesia and Sierra Leone. It also monitors implementation of defendants' rights in EU member states.

More information about the program at Justice Initiative can be found here