Legal aid in criminal cases

Righting an imperfect system

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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.

It is not just about the numbers: it is all about the impact

While numbers play a major role in monitoring the extent of work efforts, they can only provide a limited picture of the real impact and long-term change affecting the lives of many individuals.


Legal assistance in criminal cases is not only related to influencing judicial outcomes in the long run (guilty or not-guilty verdicts). The early involvement of a lawyer impacts the duration of detention: spending an additional day in jail while waiting for trial may mean losing a job, not being able to pay rent, failing to put food on the table.


In criminal cases, JCLA’s involvement starts at the most crucial stage of the criminal justice system: pretrial. The early hours of criminal proceedings are perhaps the most critical in setting the basis for accused to defend themselves, determining the type of accusation, the length of detention and whether or not the accused will face (fair) trial. Pretrial is also the stage where detainees are the most vulnerable, posing the highest risk of torture and ill-treatment, forced confessions and arbitrary detention. Often, the absence of a lawyer at pretrial leads to longer periods of detention, causing unnecessary additional stress to the accused.

From 15 to 1: when numbers make a difference

Salah and Samer, two Jordanian young men in their early twenties, had an altercation with Rashed, a minor. The argument became heated and led to a fight. Rashed’s father, learning about the fight, reported the incident to the police, filing the case as “sexual assault”, rather than “assault”. In Jordan, the penalty for sexual assault can reach up to 15 years imprisonment, while assault never exceeds one year. While in detention, Salah and Samer reached out to JCLA through its hotline and a lawyer promptly went to represent them at the police station. The lawyer had the police officer modify the description and category of the complaint so that, should the case go to trial, fair procedures would be ensured.


In the end, the case never made it to trial, as JCLA’s lawyer mediated between the parties and Rashed’s father dropped all charges. Nevertheless, had the attorney not been present, the two young men may have been convicted to a sentence far harsher than they deserved.


Having a lawyer by their side changes defendants’ perceptions of the justice system: like guides in a foreign territory, lawyers allow defendants to feel safe, while strengthening the efficiency and effectiveness of the criminal justice system. This not only contributes to ensuring correct practices and safeguarding the rights of the accused, but it also promotes fair trial standards enhancing accountability of the rule of law. Through this process, JCLA builds the trust of individuals, their families and communities towards the justice system, increasing reliance of the society on the rule of law.


The same impact of legal aid intervention at pretrial cascades to the entirety of criminal proceedings, for defendants and plaintiffs alike.


In the case of Yazan, the presence of a lawyer shifted his status from suspect to victim. The young man’s appearance does not conform with the stereotypical gender norms of masculinity in Jordanian society. For this reason, he frequently suffers from harassment. After being harassed, both verbally and physically by a group of men, Yazan reported the case to the police. The officers, however, were not responsive and kept intimidating him during their questioning, refusing to see him as a victim. Yazan reached out to JCLA and was accompanied by a lawyer to the police station. In the lawyer’s presence, the police officers completely changed their attitude, showing seriousness and filing a complaint against the group of men. The case was taken to court, with Yazan represented by JCLA.


The presence of a lawyer is not only reassuring for the represented, but it also helps break the influence of customs and traditions in favor of a fair application of the law.


Change and impact can be like a growing curve stretching its height and reach. Through our detention hotline and legal services, we have created a legal culture where the community is aware of the importance of legal knowledge and the presence of a lawyer. Individuals now, instead of reaching out to JCLA once in detention, call us before turning themselves in or before being arrested, in order to receive a consultation. People have started to demand the presence of a lawyer from the start of their criminal proceedings. Legal knowledge is spreading, accountability is increasing and JCLA is proud to be catalyzing this change.

Together, we help shape justice

At JCLA, we believe that real change cannot be achieved by any organization alone. For this reason, JCLA has been working together with its partners in civil society for more than ten years, not only by leveraging its network when leading access to justice campaigns, but also offering its expertise to strengthen civil society efforts from a legal perspective.


JCLA plays an extremely active role in civil society when it comes to criminal justice. Among its several initiatives, JCLA launched the campaign 8 _دستور# (8_Constitution), in partnership with the Public Security Department. The title refers to Article 8 of the Jordanian Constitution, which lists the rights and regulation in regard to arrest and detention. The campaign specifically focused on rights at pretrial, reminding the general public that they have the right to request a lawyer at any time throughout the process. Additionally, JCLA provides direct support to human rights advocates, by availing legal assistance whenever they would be arrested for participating in public demonstrations. JCLA also closely collaborates with the National Center for Human Rights, documenting and referring alleged claims of torture. Through its engagement in several coalitions, JCLA presents shadow reports to the UPR on detention, human rights violation and torture, advocates for civil space in Jordan and lobbies the government for legislation that considers the needs of the most vulnerable. Further, JCLA trains other CBOs on criminal justice issues, with a focus on juvenile law, alternative sanctions and referral mechanisms. Through its active engagement, JCLA strives to promote legal empowerment within civil society, so that together, we create change and shape justice.

Placing people’s needs at the top of the policy agenda

The engagement and participation of government and public institutions is paramount to the accomplishment of long-term sustainable change. For this reason, JCLA has built strong partnerships with several stakeholders to achieve the establishment of a legal system that is effective, inclusive and accountable towards vulnerable groups.


JCLA’s ultimate goal is the establishment of a comprehensive institutionalized legal aid system. For this reason, it engages in several steps paving the way to reach this achievement. In collaboration with the Ministry of Justice, JCLA builds the capacity of court liaison officers responsible for determining the eligibility legal aid beneficiaries whose lawyer is to be appointed by the court.


Further, JCLA works closely with the Public Security Department, training its officers on pretrial detention, prevention of torture and ill-treatment, best practices and fair trial standards. This collaboration enabled JCLA lawyers to enter police stations when called through the detention hotline, overcoming initial resistance. Now, not only do lawyers freely access police stations, but police officers at times reach out to JCLA themselves to refer cases. As part of its engagement with the PSD, JCLA also collaborates with the Juvenile Police, to enhance child protection in criminal cases.


In terms of legislative advocacy, in 2018 JCLA played a key role in the withdrawal and amendment of the Cybercrime Law, which expanded the criminalization extent and related penalties. On this occasion, JCLA developed a position paper on the draft law and participated in the “Free_Net” campaign. JCLA continues to advocate for enhanced legislation and practices, for instance regarding the criminalization of insolvency issues. Jordan, in fact, still allows debt imprisonment, with penalties up to 90 days for each debt, even when minor. Through its papers and recommendations, JCLA advocates for an approach that protects both creditors and debtors, proposing government-enacted solutions that will contribute to decrease the imprisonment of debtors.


Adopting an inclusive, participatory and grassroots approach, JCLA works to enhance criminal justice at the national level, in the effort to achieve a system that ensures fair trial and legal aid to all.