March 31, 2015

Director’s Message: Lessons on Strengthening Criminal Justice from Mexico to Ukraine

March 2015


I am just back from Ukraine and the Balkans, where the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI) is working closely with justice sector actors on criminal procedure reform, in particular on strengthening the capacity of defense lawyers to ensure equality of arms under new adversarial criminal procedures. With a trend toward adversarial processes sweeping the globe, criminal defense capacity building has become a major focus of ABA ROLI programming in recent years, especially in Latin America and in Europe and Eurasia, but also in parts of Africa and Asia. In all, ABA ROLI works on criminal justice issues in more than 20 countries worldwide. This focus makes sense. The criminal justice system is a bellwether for rule of law in any society, and a strong criminal justice system requires effectiveness and capacity in all of the actors in that system.


Elizabeth Andersen, ABA ROLI director and Vitaliy Baev of Ukraine's Legal Assistance Coordinating Center pose next to a poster that reads "Don't sign anything without a lawyer." 


Here are a few lessons that we are learning about elements of effective strategies to build criminal justice sector capacity:

  • The Importance of Defense Counsel. It seems obvious, but strengthening the capacity of defense counsel is often overlooked in rule of law development programs, with a disproportionate amount of assistance targeting judges, prosecutors and police. Developing the capacity of the defense is critically important, not just as an end in itself, but as an important prod to judges and prosecutors to improve their functioning as well. A criminal justice system will only be as effective as all of its component parts—police, prosecutors, defense attorneys and judges. Targeting reform within one institution without addressing the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the others is unlikely to work. [Here’s an example of the work we do with defense advocates in Ukraine.]
  • The Value of Joint Trainings and Mock Trials for Judges, Prosecutors and Defense Advocates. In many countries in which we work, judges and prosecutors are trained together, and defense counsel receive training separately. The grouping of judges and prosecutors in joint trainings tends to reinforce a traditional understanding of their working together that is at odds with new adversarial procedures being implemented. One solution, of course, is to split up the trainings. Another that ABA ROLI has found particularly valuable, especially as systemic criminal procedure code reforms occur, is joint trainings and mock trials, enabling all actors to gain an enhanced understanding of their unique roles and to practice them in the process.
  • Strengthening Defense Advocacy through Bar Networks. A third strategy that is paying dividends—particularly in the Balkans—is networking bar associations on a regional basis. This approach is effective for sharing lessons learned, pooling resources for educational programming and strengthening the voice of bar leaders on issues such as legal profession independence and needed procedural reforms. This past weekend, ABA ROLI was pleased to host a leadership conference of the Balkans Regional Rule of Law Network (BRRLN), gathering bar leaders, civil society representatives and members of the media from Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, Macedonia and Serbia. ABA President William Hubbard and President of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe Maria Slavak addressed the gathering, highlighting the experience of their associations in strengthening the legal profession in Europe and in the United States. [You can read more about our work with the BRRLN here.]
  • Focusing on the Next Generation. A final thread that runs through and strengthens ABA ROLI criminal justice programming is a distinct focus on legal education and law schools. We find that re-orienting established criminal justice actors to new roles and rules is challenging. We must persist in these efforts, but perhaps even more important is to focus on the next generation. Thus, in Mexico, ABA ROLI's work with bar associations on implementation of a new adversarial criminal procedure code is complemented by  robust  assistance targeting law schools, both professors and students, that provides a curriculum on the new code and practical skills training in the form of mock trials and clinical legal education­­. Similarly, in Kyrgyzstan, ABA ROLI’s work to strengthen the criminal justice system extends to the law schools and a clinical legal education program that has over the past three years taught 500 students, who in turn have provided more than 1,800 consultations to vulnerable clients—more than half of them women. In both Mexico and Kyrgyzstan, we see promising signs that this new cohort of lawyers will be well prepared to implement the new adversarial process and, as they assume their professional roles, put pressure on more senior actors to follow suit.

ABA ROLI is enormously proud of the work we are doing the world over on the front lines of criminal justice reform. There are few arenas in which the rule of law is more keenly tested, and we are committed to finding innovative and effective strategies to support justice sector colleagues in this critically important field.