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Portugal must ensure justice is accessible to all, UN rights expert warns

LISBON (3 February 2015) – United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers, Gabriela Knaul, called* on Portugal to redouble its efforts to make justice in the country more accessible.

At the end of her first information-gathering visit to Portugal, Ms. Knaul recognized that the country has a solid legal framework protecting the independence of the judiciary, but noted that: “Independence should not mean isolation; justice must be accessible to all on an equal footing to fulfill its role.”

She continued: “One of the most serious concerns in Portugal is the increasing costs to access justice”. In this context, she underlined the importance of legal aid programmes, which are essential for many to be able to claim their rights, especially when poverty is increasing in the country.

“Legal aid exists in Portugal, but many don’t qualify to receive it due to the restrictive requirements. Furthermore, the fragmentation of responsibilities in the delivery of legal aid can lead to excessive delays in obtaining such support,” Ms. Knaul said.

“Ensuring access to justice also means paying particular attention to the situation of persons particularly vulnerable to violence, such as women, children or persons in detention,” the expert highlighted. “The re-victimization of women and children victims of violence through the justice system is unacceptable and measures need to be taken to support and protect these victims without delay,” she added.

“I am aware that my visit occurs at a time where Portugal is promoting a comprehensive structural reform of the justice system. While it is too early to assess the impact of the different measures, I am concerned about the speed with which some were implemented, which in some cases led to worrying results, such as the recent collapse of the courts’ computer system,” said Ms.Knaul.

Mrs. Knaul also recommended giving greater budgetary, financial and administrative autonomy to the Courts and the Public Prosecution. “The concentration of administrative responsibilities under the Ministry of Justice seems to limit the possibilities of accountability of judges and prosecutors.”

“There must be a continuous dialogue between the government, judges, prosecutors, lawyers and representatives of civil society to ensure that the reforms bring the desired changes and increase the effectiveness of the justice system,” she concluded.

During her eight-day visit, the UN independent expert travelled to Lisbon, Porto and Coimbra where she met representatives of the State, including numerous judges and prosecutors, as well as lawyers and representatives from civil society and academia. The Special Rapporteur will prepare a report on her visit that will be presented to the Human Rights Council in June 2015.

(*) Check the full end of mission statement (in Portuguese): http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15536&LangID=E

Gabriela Kaul was appointed by Human Rights Council took up her functions as UN Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers on 1 August 2009. In that capacity, she acts independently from any Government or organization. Ms. Knaul has a long-standing experience as a judge in Brazil and is an expert in criminal justice and the administration of judicial systems.

The Special Rapporteurs are part of what is known as the Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council. Special Procedures, the largest body of independent experts in the UN Human Rights system, is the general name of the Council’s independent fact-finding and monitoring mechanisms that address either specific country situations or thematic issues in all parts of the world. Special Procedures’ experts work on a voluntary basis; they are not UN staff and do not receive a salary for their work. They are independent from any government or organization and serve in their individual capacity. Learn more, log on to: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Judiciary/Pages/IDPIndex.aspx

UN Human Rights, Country Page – Portugal: http://www.ohchr.org/EN/countries/ENACARegion/Pages/PTIndex.aspx

For further information and media requests, please contact:
Marcelo Daher (+41 22 917 94 31 – before the visit / +41 79 109 68 75 – mobile during the visit only) / or write to mdaher@ohchr.org
Amanda Flores (+41 22 917 91 86 / aflores@ohchr.org) or write to SRindependenceJL@ohchr.org

For media inquiries related to other UN independent experts:
Xabier Celaya, UN Human Rights – Media Unit (+ 41 22 917 9383 / xcelaya@ohchr.org)

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