Civil Society Consultation with the U.S. Government on Access to Justice

2:30-6:00pm

April 1, 2014

American University Washington College of Law

4801 Massachusetts Ave NW, Room 603

Washington, D.C. 20016

 

A recording of the consultation is available here.

What are Civil Society Consultations?

The US Government participates in a variety of consultations with civil society about its international human rights obligations and commitments.  The April 1, 2014 consultation was organized for the dual purposes of engaging civil society on (1) the implementation of those recommendations from the 2010 Universal Periodic Review that the US Government supported in full or in part where access to justice plays a critical role, and (2) relevant obligations under the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

What is the Universal Periodic Review (UPR)?

The Universal Periodic Review (UPR) was established by the UN General Assembly as a process through which the human rights records of all UN Member States could be reviewed and assessed by the UN Human Rights Council. The United States is scheduled to participate in its second UPR review by the UN Human Rights Council in spring 2015.  In anticipation of the next review, the US government is preparing a report to submit to the UN Human Rights Council in January 2015. To prepare its report, the US government will participate in several consultations with civil society regarding the recommendations from its first UPR review in 2010 that it supports in whole or in part.  

What is the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD)?

The International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) is one of the international human rights treaties to which the United States is a party.  As part of its obligations under the convention, the United States is required to submit periodic reports on its implementation of the ICERD to the UN committee that monitors the treaty.  After submitting their reports, countries also appear before the Committee in Geneva for a presentation, which is followed by the Committee’s issuance of Concluding Observations. 

The United States filed its report on June 12, 2013, and is scheduled to appear before the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD Committee) in August 2014.   Prior U.S. reports and the CERD Committee’s 2008 Concluding Observations are available here.

Who can participate in the consultation?

The Civil Society Consultation on Access to Justice allowed for presentations to be made to the US Government by legal aid attorneys, public defenders, clients, and other experts. The presentations focused on the issue of meaningful access to justice in both the civil and criminal contexts, providing specific examples of what the United States does well and where improvements could be made that would improve implementation of its international human rights obligations and commitments.

Government officials from a wide range of federal were in attendance. A live webcast of the consultation and video conference capabilities (skype) were available to allow officials, legal aid attorneys, public defenders, clients, and others, to view the consultation and make presentations from across the country.

Access to justice issues in both the civil and criminal contexts came up previously in civil society consultations and several of the recommendations from the 2010 UPR that the United States supports in whole or in part.  Indigent criminal defense has also come up more recently in the Fourth Periodic Report of the US to the UN Human Rights Committee Concerning the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (December 2011) (see, e.g., ¶302, 305, 318) and the Periodic Report of the US to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (June 2013) (see, e.g., ¶59-74).

What will be discussed?

The consultation focused on efforts to support the provision of legal services or access to courts/judicial processes as they relate to the 2010 UPR recommendations which the United States supports in whole or in part, and the CERD Committee’s Concluding Observations (see footnotes below for references to specific recommendations).

2:30pm – 2:45pm             Welcome & Introductions

Anthony E. Varona, Professor of Law and Dean of Faculty & Academic Affairs, American University Washington College of Law

Tonya Robinson, Special Assistant to the President for Justice & Regulatory Policy, White House Domestic Policy Council

Bruce Nelson, U.S. Department of State

2:45pm - 4:15pm             Panel on Access to Justice in the Civil Justice System

This panel focused on access to justice in the civil justice system and specifically challenges to the provision of free and affordable civil legal services to the poor and middle class.* In particular, the provision of these services can help to promote equal socio-economic opportunities, educational opportunities, the removal of obstacles to employment, the prevention of homelessness, and access to federal benefits programs such as those for food and health, as well as potentially reduce the burden on the struggling indigent defense system.** The panel also may have addressed how civil access to justice can also help to promote fairness and equality and secure equal protection of the rights of migrants, persons with disabilities, victims of domestic violence, individuals in immigration proceedings, and victims of trafficking.*** 

* The issue of civil legal services for the poor was raised in the CERD Committee’s 2008 Concluding Observations. See ¶22.

** The issues discussed during this panel may relate to the following UPR Recommendations, which the US supports: 109, 113, 195, 196, and 226. 

*** Discussion of these issues might relate to the following UPR Recommendations, which the US supports: 114, 116, 165, 167, 169, 185, 198, 214, and 225, and these UPR Recommendations, which the US supports in part: 62 and 81.

2:45pm – 3:45pm Prepared presentations by legal aid experts, providers, and clients (each participant will speak for about 8 minutes).

3:45pm – 4:00pm Floor open for comments by other civil society members present.

4:00pm – 4:15pm U.S. Government Response as appropriate.

4:15pm – 4:30pm Coffee Break

4:30pm – 6:00pm Panel on Access to Justice in the Criminal Justice System

This panel focused on access to justice in the criminal justice system.  In particular, the panel addressed challenges in the provision of legal representation to indigent individuals, both juvenile and adult,facing criminal prosecution, and the impact of those challenges on members of racial and ethnic minorities. Access to qualified, effective defense counsel helps to ensure that the criminal justice system respects the due process rights of the criminally accused and may mitigate racial and class disparities in the disposition of criminal cases. The panel also may have addressed other measures to end racial bias in the criminal justice system, the disproportionate impact of minimum mandatory sentences on members of racial and ethnic minorities, the trial and sentencing of children in adult courts,and the right to habeas corpus.  

The issues discussed during this panel may also have related to the following UPR Recommendations , which the US supports: 96 and 97, and UPR Recommendation 186, which the US supports in part.  The issues also might relate to paras 20-22 of the CERD Committee’s 2008 Concluding Observations.

4:30pm – 5:30pm Prepared presentations by criminal defense experts, public defenders, and clients (each participant will speak for about 8 minutes).

5:30pm – 5:45pm Floor open for comments by other civil society members who are present.

5:45pm – 6:00pm U.S. Government Response by representatives as appropriate.

Why Participate?

The consultation process is an opportunity to enter into a conversation with the US Government on the implementation of the United States’ human rights obligations and commitments.  While there was only time for 4-5 presenters per panel, there was ample opportunity to collaborate on presentations. In addition, written submissions were collected, compiled, and presented to the US Government, as well as the UN Human Rights Council (Information on how to make a submission to the Human Rights Council for the United States’ Universal Periodic Review, is available here). Legal aid attorneys, public defenders, clients, academics and other nonprofit groups were encouraged to attend and get involved in planning the Consultation. Knowledge of international human rights law and the UN process is not necessary for participation. This was an important opportunity to address the government on how access to justice can help promote the implementation of United States human rights obligations and commitments.