Results of the project “Enhancing the Quality of Legal Aid: General Standards for Different Countries”

The project “Enhancing the Quality of Legal Aid: General Standards for Different Countries (QUAL-AID)” was developed and implemented in 2016-2018 by partners from three EU Member States: Lithuania, Germany and the Netherlands. The project was led by the Law Institute of Lithuania with the main researchers being Dr. Simonas Nikartas, Dr. Agnė Limantė and Laurynas Totoraitis. The project benefited from EU co-funding which was provided under the Justice Programme (JUST/2015/JACC/AG/PROC/8632).

Besides Law Institute of Lithuania, Lithuanian team also included Lithuanian State-Guaranteed Legal Aid Service, represented by Dr. Anželika Banevičienė and Diana Jarmalė, and Lithuanian Bar Association, represented by Dr. LaurynasBiekša. The German partner was Goethe University of Frankfurt under principle investigation of Prof. Dr. Christoph Burchard (LL.M. NYU) and Prof. Dr. Matthias Jahn (judge at the Higher Regional Court Frankfurt) with their researcher being Sarah Zink. The National Legal Aid Board of the Netherlands, institution entrusted with all matters of administration of legal aid, was team member from the Netherlands, represented by Herman Schilperoort, Dr. Susanne Peters and Dr. Lia Combrink-Kuiters.

The project was developed in the light of the recent efforts of international community to take steps towards improving legal aid quality and, in the EU context, taking into account the Directive (EU) 2016/1919 on legal aid for suspects and accused persons in criminal proceedings and for requested persons in European arrest warrant proceedings[1]. Project partners sought to contribute to enhancing the quality of legal aid services in criminal proceedingswithin the EU by developing practice standards for legal aid provision, enhancement of its quality and for supervision. In this regard, the project aimed at assisting Member States in proper implementation of Directive 2016/1919. As additional target, the project partners sought to raise capacity of legal aid policy makers, administrators and providers in ensuring high quality legal aid.

In the framework of the project, two main documents have been published, which can be accessed with the links below. In the following, the focus is on the toolbox approach, which forms the basis for the findings on the practice standards. Since the quality, effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of legal aid in criminal matters can be achieved by many means, and since their assurance is contingent on many factors (just to give a simple example - on the general “legal culture” in a given jurisdiction), the QUAL-AID partners agreed to follow a toolbox concept, which allows the legal aidstakeholders to take into consideration several tools to enhance the quality of legal aid in criminal matters, thus establishing general standards for legal aid in criminal matters for different jurisdictions (see the project title). The toolbox concept allows building a coherent system, in which legal aid stakeholders (lawyers, legal aid agencies, etc.) deliver an adequate quality of legal aid services. 

The toolbox concept is premised on the assumption that the legal aid system has many facets, that a legal aid scheme must in itself balance divergent interests and values (e.g. the independence of the legal profession vs. quality assurance by means of external review), and that the effectiveness of a legal aid regime rests on many influencing factors, which must not be evaluated in isolation. The toolbox concept takes to heart the European idea of “unity in diversity”, which means that there are national identities, which must be protected as a matter of EU constitutional law.

The toolbox concept does not necessarily rest on the premise that the use of many of our suggested practice standards has a positive impact on the functioning of the legal aid system, although this would seem likely and probable. Further empirical work needs to be done to verify the said premise. As of now, several legal aid experts have voiced the opinion that the use of certain individual tools can outweigh the non-use of others, a factual statement that has been disputed by other experts. For example, it is open for debate whether an excellent formation of lawyers compensates deficits in life-long-learning regimes. Therefore, further analyses are necessary to query if there exist general hierarchies in the toolbox, e.g. if a peer review system contributes to the quality of a legal aid scheme in a better way than other tools. 

The list of tools presented in the final findings of the project emerged in the extensive research that the project partners have performed in their home countries, through expert and legal aid clients’ interviews, conference, workshops, study visits, studies of national systems, good practice examples, and running the survey.

Several words should be said here as to the survey that has been conducted in the course of the project. In order to secure the adequacy of the proposed practice standards for legal aid providers, to check whether they are complete, and to guarantee that they can sufficiently take into account the particularities (including the constitutional identities, see Article 4 TEU) of the legal orders of the Member States, the project partners have conducted one of the most holistic online survey on the practice standards for adequate legal aid in criminal matters. As of 1 October 2018, the survey was completed by 90 experts, who are involved in the process of organising and providing legal aid and who come from 22 different Member States. The survey has run for eight months. The interim results were discussed in a meeting of international legal aid experts and the input has been entered into the final report. Based on the assessment of the international experts in the survey and the conference and the project partners` own research, they have developed practice standards – arranged as tools – that can be applied across jurisdictions. The tools in the report are not meant to be applied in isolation, but in combination with each other. Every tool has its own advantages and shortcomings, which need to be mutually checked and balanced.

Based on this idea, the project partners held trainings in their home countries in the last workstream of the project and identified the existing tools together with national stakeholders, especially lawyers working in the system. In this context, they also pointed out blank spaces in the national systems where in the course of the project in an international comparison identified tools could be implemented in a practically useful manner without interfering with the national constitutional identities of the individual Member States, thus enhancing general standards for different countries.

Please find the publications on “Practice standards for legal aid providers” and “Tools and Criteria for Measuring Legal Aid Quality” here:

Prepared bySarah Zink, researcher at Goethe University Frankfurt, Germany for the project partners of “QUAL-AID” (“Enhancing the Quality of Legal Aid: General Standards for Different Countries”, co-funded by the EU under the Justice Programme)

[1] OJ L 297, 4.11.2016, p. 1–8.