UN expert urges Portugal to boost access to justice for country's most vulnerable people

3 February 2015

Portuguese authorities must do more to ensure wider access to the country's justice system, enhancing its legal aid programmes amid growing poverty, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers has urged.

“One of the most serious concerns in Portugal is the increasing costs to access justice,” Gabriela Knaul stressed in a news release issued today, following her eight-day visit to the country.

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

Ms. Knaul, an independent expert appointed by the Geneva-based Human Rights Council, explained that by ensuring greater access to the justice system, the Government of Portugal would also give attention to the situations of persons “particularly vulnerable to violence,” such as women, children or persons in detention.

She added that the “re-victimization” of women and children victims of violence through the justice system remained “unacceptable” and urged authorities to speedily implement measures to support and protect these victims.

The Special Rapporteur acknowledged that her visit – which took her from Lisbon to Porto and on to Coimbra – had come at a time of comprehensive structural reform for the Portuguese justice system but remained concerned about delays affecting the implementation of such reforms, including the recent collapse of the Courts' computer system.

To that point, she called on the Government to provide greater budgetary, financial, and administrative autonomy to the Courts and the Public Prosecution, warning that the concentration of administrative responsibilities under the Ministry of Justice appeared “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.


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