Access to justice in Fiji has been further strengthened through fostering mutual learning and knowledge sharing to promote effective legal aid services at the global level.
This was made possible at the International Legal Aid Group (ILAG) Conference in which the Fiji Legal Aid Commission attended in Ottawa, Canada from 17-19 June organized by ILAG, a global network of legal aid specialists from ‘over two-dozen’ countries.
Fiji’s participation in the cooperation of the global legal aid network was supported as part of the initiative to strengthen people’s access to justice in Fiji, the Fiji Access to Justice Project, funded by the European Union (EU) and implemented by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).
The ILAG biennial conference invites legal aid providers from around the planet to showcase their legal aid service models, discuss common issues and challenges, and identify global direction of the legal aid practices. It was the second ILAG Conference the Fiji Legal Aid Commission participated in with support from the Fiji Access to Justice Project, the other being the last Conference held in South Africa in 2017.
This year’s conference, with its theme, ‘Legal Aid as Public Service: Is it Achievable?’ was opened by the Canadian Minister of Justice, Hon. David Lametti. The ILAG Conference discussed a wide range of contemporary issues, including UN Sustainable Development Goal 16.3 which focuses on promoting the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all; the cost-effectiveness of legal aid; needs assessments; public legal education and capacity building; holistic approaches to service delivery; quality assurance methods; technology and innovative forms of delivery; self-help and litigants in person.
Legal Aid Commission Acting Director Mr. Shahin Ali presented on the system of legal aid in Fiji, its achievements and challenges in implementing Fiji’s legal aid scheme, with a special focus on the systems and procedures for early access to Legal Aid for suspects in custody, and in particular, the First Hour Procedure.
Mr. Ali highlighted that progress towards ensuring access to justice in Fiji has accelerated due to the engagement and coordination of all key justice stakeholders. The unity of purpose of the Chief Justice, the Legal Aid Commission, the Fiji Human Rights and Anti-Discrimination Commission, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Fiji Police Force has reached unprecedented heights in Fiji. Such collaboration is a most significant achievement, demonstrating their commitment to ensuring access to justice in Fiji.
Mr. Ali acknowledged that strengthening the pro bono culture and private bar engagement would further advance a sector-wide approach to sustainable access to justice.
“I learned that various issues discussed in the conference were highly relevant to our Fijian context, ranging from strengthening legal service provision for vulnerable populations to using technology to improve access to justice. I am grateful for the support provided by the EU through the Fiji Access to Justice Project to keep Fiji Legal Aid Commission abreast of global direction of legal aid practices for the benefit of marginalized citizens in Fiji,” said Mr. Ali.
“On the same note, I can confidently say that many of the other countries represented at this Conference were greatly impressed with the commitment and funding from the Fijian Government to the Legal Aid Commission because other legal aid providers around the world have suffered funding cuts or no Government support towards such a scheme. Fijians are therefore quite fortunate in that sense. Delegates also expressed their amazement in the work done towards providing greater access to justice for suspects and others generally based on the service delivery model we have, which is quite unique,” he added.
Mr Ali also acknowledged the work of and support from the EU and UNDP in the area of access to justice in Fiji, especially with the work currently being undertaken with the Legal Aid Commission.
Mr. Ali also met with Canadian legal aid providers and legal actors in the Ottawa area in bilateral meetings coordinated by UNDP. Legal Aid Ontario hosted Mr. Ali and a group of legal aid providers from around the world for a deep dive into their institutional set up, as well as the multiple levels and mechanisms through which legal aid is delivered throughout Canada’s most populous province. The group also conducted an extensive site visit to the Provincial Superior Court in Ottawa to meet the Duty Solicitor team.
Connections were established to Canadian technical support networks, while insights on aspects of federal legal aid funding were gained through discussion with the Federal Department of Justice. Mr Ali also visited the Legal Services Society of British Columbia and held meetings with the CEO with prospects of future collaboration especially in the area of technology based access to justice services.
The EU Delegation for the Pacific Head of Cooperation Mr. Christoph Wagner said, “Institutional development of the Legal Aid Commission is one of the pillars the EU supports through the Fiji Access to Justice Project. I am glad that good practice in providing services by the Fiji Legal Aid Commission was shared in the international knowledge network, while the Commission is further gaining insight from the professional knowledge exchange.”
The Fiji Access to Justice Project supports access to justice for impoverished and vulnerable groups by empowering people to access their legal rights and services through the relevant key justice institutions, in conjunction with strengthening those key justice institutions to undertake improved service delivery.
UNDP Pacific Office in Fiji Resident Representative Mr Levan Bouadze stressed that knowledge exchange through global networking is a bold way to advance sustainable development progress. “I believe that enhanced knowledge of global best practices and lessons learned in legal aid service provision will directly benefit all Fijians, particularly those that are disadvantaged, said Mr. Bouadze.
The Fiji Access to Justice Project contributes towards achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, in particular SDG 16, which is a commitment to promoting peaceful and inclusive societies for sustainable development, providing access to justice for all and building effective, accountable and inclusive institutions at all levels. It also contributes to SDG 5, advancing gender equality and empowering all women and girls.