This editorial is the second in a four part series for the 2014 UN Human Rights Council’s annual day on the rights of the child. In this editorial, we address why States should ensure children can access legal representation by helping them overcome financial barriers, making sure advice is tailored to children’s needs and making sure that the assistance is focused on the child rather than anyone else.This year the theme is access to justice. Read the first - “Open the maze” - on the importance of States recognising that children are human beings with human rights.
Get shown through the maze
Legal systems are a maze to most people. Layers of complexity have been built into the system with all the different types of courts (not to mention other legal settings), documents that need to be filed, rules of evidence, legal jargon, and much more.
Getting the right assistance, advice and representation from a trained professional can show people the way through the access to justice maze.
Children often lack experience of the law, don’t know their rights, and have little money. This makes them more vulnerable to getting lost in the legal system. But that’s not all - in most cases children’s low status means they are barred from accessing legal systems.
The importance of legal assistance has been reiterated by many experts. For instance, “legal assistance provides children with the means to understand legal proceedings, to defend their rights and to make their voices heard,” said the Special Rapporteur on the independence of lawyers and judges in her 2013 annual report.
One of the biggest blocks to obtaining legal assistance for most people is cost. Children’s low status and lack of income means that this is an even higher barrier to them.
State governed and funded legal aid services are one of the best ways to ensure people who otherwise couldn’t obtain legal assistance are able to access justice. It is imperative that a State’s free (or grossly subsidised legal aid services) are available to children, and that procedures for obtaining legal aid are simple, accessible and well-publicised.
To be effective, legal aid needs to include “unhindered access to legal aid providers, confidentiality of communications, access to information and to case files, and adequate time and facilities to prepare legal cases, as well as the provision of legal advice and education, and mechanisms for alternative dispute resolution."
Legal aid or sufficiently subsided legal services for children should be extended to all proceedings and settings, including criminal, civil, administrative, family, customary law and informal legal proceedings. Granting children access to legal aid across all legal settings empowers them to enforce and defend their rights and would help secure their status as human beings with human rights.
Are all lawyers the same?
It goes without saying that someone providing legal advice needs to have sufficient qualifications and training. After all, the complexity of the law and legal systems is what creates the need for legal assistance in the first place.
Along with other personal characteristics (including gender, race, sexuality etc), a person’s age helps shape how they are treated by others and how they experience the world. Children are unique because of their age, and are vulnerable because of their lack of status. Legal professionals representing children need to be well-versed in issues related to children’s rights, child development and child-friendly communication, and then tailor the legal assistance they give to the rights and needs of children.
Child’s best interest
Related to this concept of best interests is the fact that it is the child’s right to access justice, no one else’s. Access to justice for children’s rights violations must be about obtaining justice for children. Part of this means that legal representation must be focused on the child and their best interests. This will be covered in tomorrow’s editorial on the access to justice for children maze - “Choose a path” - that will discuss children’s ability to start legal proceedings and their right to be heard.
CRIN is reporting live from Geneva for the week of the annual day (10 - 14 March) - sign up to receive our daily Children’s Rights at the UN CRINmails with updates and analysis on what is going on at the Council and follow #HRC25 on twitter.
Read the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights’ (OHCHR) report that will be the basis of discussions during the annual day.
Read CRIN’s submission for the above report.
Read CRIN's guide to the UN for more on the Human Rights Council and other UN mechanisms.
The justice theme page of our website also has some further information.
 Paragraph 84, A/HRC/23/43. Can be found at : http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/23/43
 ibid, paragraph 3
 ibid, paragraph 41
 See International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Article 14; UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, Principles 2, 3 and 10, available at: http://www.un.org/Docs/journal/asp/ws.asp?m=E/CN.15/2012/L.14/Rev.1.
 UN Committee on the Rights of the Child, General Comment No. 10 on children's rights in juvenile justice, para. 49, available at http://www2.ohchr.org/english/bodies/crc/docs/GC10_en.doc.
 SR on independence of judges and lawyers 2013 annual report (A/HRC/23/43), paragraph 27. Can be found at : http://ap.ohchr.org/documents/dpage_e.aspx?si=A/HRC/23/43
 UN Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers, Principles 2 and 3, available at: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/ProfessionalInterest/Pages/RoleOfLawyers.aspx.
 see footnote 53 in CRIN submission
 Committee on the Rights of teh Child general comment no 14 on the right of the child to have his or her best interests taken as a primary consideration, paragraph 37 (CRC/C/GC/14). Can be found at: http://www.crin.org/en/library/publications/crc-general-comment-best-int...