Righting an imperfect system

legal aid in criminal cases

“I did not know that to present a case in court you had to be a mathematician” – Abu Yousef

When tackling the topic of criminal justice in Jordan, there are several complex considerations, implications and principles to keep in mind. However, for the sake of simplicity, we will take into account only one: everyone has the right to legal defense. This right is granted by the Jordanian Constitution, since even when unable to afford a lawyer and ineligible for state legal aid, defendants can self-represent. What is not taken into account is the quality of defense, which is entirely dependent on the capacity and skills of the defendants to navigate the legal system. While not doubting the skills of some, in JCLA’s experience, we find that most beneficiaries facing criminal trials without a lawyer share the same confusion and disorientation as Abu Yousef. Before being referred to JCLA, Abu Yousef began attending his court proceedings by himself. Oblivious to the law and legal language, he could not fathom what all the numbers that kept being cited in reference to legal articles and laws could mean. This not only made it challenging for him to state his case, but it also made it impossible to follow court proceedings and present an adequate defense.

This anecdote, while quite amusing, in fact exposes the tragic reality of thousands of people facing or even filing for criminal charges in a system that does not allow them to access adequate and effective legal assistance. Needless to mention that the consequences may be catastrophic: victims may be unable to claim their rights and see justice done, and defendants may be wrongfully convicted, or sentenced to a punishment that is not proportionate to the nature of the crime committed. For a defendant in a criminal case, accessing legal counsel at the right time can be the difference between years in jail and community service, or, in the best-case scenario, freedom.

In Jordan, defendants facing ten or more years of imprisonment have the right to legal aid. In practice, every year courts only appoint a few hundred lawyers for legal aid, leaving the vast majority of needs uncatered for. JCLA, whose position is not dissimilar from a public defender office, strives to cover part of the gap generated by this imperfect system. Between 2018-2020, JCLA provided over 3,500 legal services for criminal cases. JCLA specialized Criminal Justice Unit is structured in teams composed of a junior, mid-level and senior lawyer, equally working together on assigned cases. This methodology has allowed junior lawyers to grow exponentially by working side-by-side with more experienced colleagues, while reminding mid-level and senior lawyers about the importance of more “junior” tasks. Thanks to this approach, JCLA is proud to have contributed to the formation of some of the best criminal lawyers in Jordan.

I began working at JCLA as an apprentice while graduating from University, and today I work there as a lawyer – Anoud Alwahsh, Lawyer.

As part of its work in criminal justice, JCLA established a detention hotline, available 24/7 for people arrested and detained at pretrial. Between 2018-2020, JCLA assisted more than 900 people in detention, either through the guidance of its officers, or direct intervention of its lawyers.

Each time we hang up the phone, realizing that we have made a difference in the life of the person on the other side, we get the motivation to receive the next call. Actually, the next story. – Aya Hijazi, Detention Hotline Officer

Notwithstanding these efforts, the stretched capacity of service providers coupled with a dysfunctional system leaves a vast gap between demand and supply. With the intention to partially breach this gap, JCLA’s awareness program does not only inform the general public on their rights in criminal matters but is also aimed at crime prevention. Since 2018, JCLA has delivered over 560 awareness activities covering criminal topics, reaching over 22,300 women, men and children. Almost 60% of JCLA’s awareness activities between 2018-2020 focused on cybercrimes and 23% covered debt crimes. These two categories are especially relevant in Jordan, as many people find themselves charged with a criminal offence, ignoring having committed a crime.

Through its efforts, JCLA seeks to enhance the rule of law, and promote better practices in criminal justice.