Early Access to Justice Crucial for Suspects and Accused Persons

Feb 16, 2017

(L-R) President of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Professor David McQuoid-Mason; Director Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Ashwin Raj; Director Fiji Legal Aid Commission, Shahin Ali; and Programme Manager for Access to Justice, Rule of Law and Human Rights at the UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji, Christine Fowler (Photo: UNDP/Tomoko Kashiwazaki)

Access to justice during the early stages of the criminal justice process is crucial in protecting people at a time when they are most vulnerable. It ensures they are treated with respect and dealt with fairly, and strengthens the criminal justice institutions to be more responsive to the needs of citizens.

A series of training on Early Access to Justice was conducted from 7-13 February in Fiji for officers in justice sector institutions in Fiji to enhance officers’ ability to assist and protect the rights of persons who are arrested and detained on suspicion on having committed a criminal offence. 

Programme Manager for Access to Justice, Rule of Law and Human Rights at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji, Christine Fowler said, “The early stages of the criminal justice process - the first hours of custody or detention - are crucial for those who have been arrested or detained in respect of a criminal offence. 

“The way in which suspects and accused persons are treated has a significant impact on the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system.”   

A hundred and twenty (77 women and 43 men) officers participated in the training and were representatives from the Fiji Legal Aid Commission, Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission and other justice institutions who ensured proper and effective assistance for early access to justice for people in Fiji.

The President of the Commonwealth Legal Education Association at the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, Professor David McQuoid-Mason, facilitated the training and shared his expertise and experience with the participants. 

“Access to justice during the early stages of the criminal justice also ensures that poor and vulnerable people are treated with respect and dealt with fairly. It helps strengthen criminal justice institutions and make them more responsive to the needs of citizens”. 

UNDP PO A2J-Image04Participants with Prof. David McQuoid-Mason (Photo: UNDP/Tomoko Kashiwazaki)

“I was one of the legal experts who assisted with the drafting of the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Processes. As a result, I am very pleased that Fiji is one of the first developing countries in the world to take active steps to introduce aspects of the Principles and Guidelines into its legal aid processes”. 

“It is especially pleasing that all stakeholders in the criminal justice sector are cooperating for early access to justice to ensure that detained or arrested people are given access to lawyers during the first hour of their detention or arrest”.

“To my knowledge, Fiji is the first developing country in the world to begin introducing this concept. Strengthening early access to justice also enables Fiji to comply with its international obligations under the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment which it ratified on 16 March 2016”.

The feedback from participants have been very positive, and they feel that with the knowledge and skills obtained this training further enhances their ability to assist and protect the rights of arrested and detained persons in custody. 

Senior Legal Officer at the Fiji Legal Aid Commission in Lautoka, Vasemaca Tamanisau said “The training was very educational. I am fully prepared to provide effective assistance to persons who are arrested or detained on suspicion of having committed a criminal offence particularly during the First Hour Procedure and Video Recorded Interviews when they are implemented in the Western Division. I am positive that the early access to justice will be ensured all over Fiji soon.”

Director Fiji Legal Aid Commission, Shahin Ali said, "The Fijian Constitution provides the legal framework for early access to justice. Through various initiatives, the Legal Aid Commission has taken a leading role in ensuring there is greater and equal access to justice for all Fijians, especially the marginalized and most vulnerable. The Commission is mandated under the Constitution to provide free legal services to those members of public who cannot afford the services of a private legal practitioner.” 

“The Constitution has sufficient safeguards which ensures and protects the rights of arrested and detained persons in custody. The training was informative and indeed educational taking into account not only the Constitution but also international best practices by reference to conventions and international law relevant to this topic. Through this training, which focused on the rights of suspects in custody, the Fiji Legal Aid Commission officers were able to strengthen their knowledge and demonstrate their skills to ensure early access to justice for suspects and accused persons,” Mr. Ali added.

UNDP PO A2J-Image02Director Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Ashwin Raj speaking at the training (Photo: UNDP/Tomoko Kashiwazaki)

Director Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, Ashwin Raj, said, "The training on early access to justice affirms Fiji's commitment towards ensuring that the rights of arrested and detained persons under Section 13 of the Constitution are protected at all times, as well as ensuring access to justice to the vulnerable including, but by no means limited to, those with physical or mental disabilities, women, children, the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered communities, as well as those with no access to social mobility."

The European Union (EU) Ambassador to Fiji and the Pacific, H.E Andrew Jacobs said: ''The EU is proud to support this training that will contribute to the strengthening of the rule of law by enhancing the capacity of the Fiji Legal Aid Commission, Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission and other justice sector institutions in delivering access to justice for all Fijians.''

UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Country Director and Head of Regional Policy and Programme, Bakhodir Burkhanov said, “Access to justice is both an enabler for development and an outcome of development in its own right. As such, it is prominent in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which the Fiji Government has endorsed. This initiative supports Sustainable Development Goal 16 which promotes peaceful and inclusive societies, including access to justice for all, as well as Goal 5 which targets gender equality and empowerment of all women and girls”. 

The training was organized and delivered by UNDP as part of the on-going project, Fiji Access to Justice.

The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice for impoverished and vulnerable groups through empowering people to access legal rights and services through the relevant key justice institutions, in conjunction with strengthening the key justice institutions to undertake improved service delivery.  The Fiji Access to Justice Project is funded by EU and implemented by UNDP.

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