Hon. Acting Chief Justice Mr. Kamal Kumar

Hon. Attorney-General and Minister for Justice, Minister of Economy, Civil Service and Communication, Fiji Mr Aiyaz Sayed-Khaiyum,

Acting Director, Fiji Legal Aid Commission Mr Shahin Ali,

Head of Cooperation, European Union Delegation for the Pacific Mr. Christoph Wagner

Your Excellencies

Legal experts and practitioners from the Pacific region, including Fiji, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Micronesia, Palau, Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, also from Brazil, Canada, Maldives, the Netherlands, New Zealand, South Africa and Tanzania

International legal experts and practitioners

Members of civil society and the media

Ladies and gentlemen

Good morning to you all.

Introduction

It is a privilege to stand here today on behalf of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) Pacific Office in Fiji and welcome this group of such esteemed legal experts and legal aid providers from the Pacific region and across the globe.

We are honoured to have played a role in supporting this Pacific Regional Legal Aid Conference, hosted by the Fiji Legal Aid Commission with support from the European Union (EU).

Because at UNDP we view legal aid as an essential service – a critical part of ensuring that everyone, even those in the most remote communities, those with the biggest challenges in access, can access their legal rights.

International trend

It is universally understood that inequality, discrimination and exclusion remain severe obstacles to human development. Poor people and marginalized groups may not be aware of their legal rights or may have very low confidence in the justice system’s ability to protect their rights.

Within the global picture, there is a distinct ‘justice gap’ – a concept presented by the Taskforce on Justice, a distinguished group of justice leaders and experts.

There are three dimensions to this ‘justice gap’:

  1. At least 253 million people live in extreme conditions of injustice, such as modern slavery, statelessness, or conflict;
  2. 1.5 billion people cannot resolve their justice problems, they are either victims of crimes or have a serious civil or administrative problems they cannot resolve; and
  3. 4.5 billion people are excluded from the opportunities the law provides. Lack of legal identity or other documentation prevents people from accessing economic opportunities and public services, or the protection of the law.

The overall picture is alarming. In total, 5.1 billion people worldwide - two-thirds of the world’s population - lack meaningful access to justice. 

Regional priorities

At the regional level, many Pacific island countries (PICs) share some of these challenges in terms of service delivery and access to justice.

Despite relatively well developed legal frameworks, most of the countries in the Pacific region face institutional, budgetary or geographic challenges in delivering justice services to their most vulnerable citizens.

Pacific island countries are often referred to as ‘big ocean states’, affected by geographic isolation, ecological fragility, limited resources and a narrow economic base. While the democratic environment is changing rapidly through the rise of social media, increased urbanization, and regional and global economic integration, those remaining farthest behind remain the youth, women, persons with disabilities, and the geographically isolated.

That is why this conference is so important. It offers an opportunity for representatives from Pacific island countries to come together and share their experiences – their successes and challenges – in developing and delivering legal aid, and presents global best practices from leaders in this field to be discussed and learned from.

UNDP’s Role

UNDP places great importance on extending the provision of legal aid to those most in need, and works to support member state governments in reaching their commitments in this area.

Globally, the UN has adopted the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (UN Principles and Guidelines), which we will be talking about this week. These Guidelines are an important tool in extending access to justice through the establishment of criminal legal aid systems.

In Fiji, with funding from the European Union, UNDP supports the Legal Aid Commission to advance its work through initiatives such as this conference, but also to bring legal aid lawyers to remote communities through our REACH project, to provide information on the justice system to those who may otherwise not know what their rights are or how to access them.

We have also supported the development of Legal Aid Commission Strategic Plan 2019-2021, which is also being launched today, and provides a plan for the steady and concerted growth of the Legal Aid Commission throughout the country over the next three years.

Congratulations on this achievement!

The Fiji Legal Aid Commission is recognized as the best funded and equipped legal aid institution in the region. This has been made possible through the Government’s clear commitment, as established in the Constitution, to extending legal aid to its citizens, by providing a considerable budget to the Legal Aid Commission to undertake its duties.

I would like to thank the Government of Fiji and the Legal Aid Commission for hosting this important Regional Conference, and I look forward to their continued successful partnership with UNDP in Fiji.

I must express my gratitude to the European Union for generously supporting this Conference, the Fiji Access to Justice Project and broader Pacific regional cooperation.

I wish all participants fruitful discussion and enjoyable stay over next three days. 

Thank you for your attention.

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