The Right to Counsel at the Police Precinct: The West Bank Paving the Way

When you think of the West Bank, your first thought is likely not the right to counsel. Some people are surprised to hear that Palestine has a self-sufficient legal system at all, let alone a constitutionally-mandated right to an attorney for all criminally accused. Ensuring access to legal representation is critical to protecting due process, human rights, and justice, especially in historically tumultuous places like the West Bank. Institutionalizing constitutional protections as the Palestinian legal system develops and changes will ensure that best practices are embedded into its very foundation.

People at meeting
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This summer I lived in the West Bank and worked for the International Legal Foundation (the ILF), an organization that assists post-conflict and transitioning counties to establish public defense systems. While there, I had the honor of working alongside the ILF attorneys, who were unrelenting in their commitment to providing effective, quality, client-centered representation for their clients, amidst challenging conditions. One of the most impressive things about the ILF-West Bank office was the amount of work they do beyond day-to-day legal representation. In the two months, I was there, I assisted the ILF staff in training private non-ILF attorneys who handle criminal cases on the core components of quality defense representation, worked on their strategic litigation team to address deprivation of access to counsel on misdemeanor cases, and conducted strategic planning around providing comprehensive representation to juvenile clients.

Of all the projects I worked on, perhaps the most exciting was the ILF’s work to ensure indigent clients’ access to counsel at the police precinct moments after arrest. No matter the reason for the arrest, and no matter the jurisdiction, the experience of being arrested is at least confusing, and at worst deeply traumatic. Regardless of the underlying facts, arrest generally involves being physically restrained in handcuffs by an armed stranger, being put into an unfamiliar car, and brought to a foreign, unfriendly place. Once at the precinct, it is commonplace to spend hours with no access to loved ones, and no clear information about if or when you will ever get to go home.

To address this, the ILF has been working to raise support for early access to counsel for individuals detained at the police stations, prior to formal charging. This summer, we organized a roundtable of representatives from the police department, juvenile police department, detention facilities, and nonprofit organizations to discuss what it would mean for police precincts and detention facilities to permit the ILF attorneys access to recently accused indigent people to provide free legal consultation. At the roundtable, my colleague and I discussed the ways that early access to counsel can have a dramatic impact on case and life outcomes for clients by eliminating the possibility of false confessions and illegal detentions, creating potential for diversionary measures and alternatives to incarceration, and reducing overcrowding in jails. We also discussed the way such a program could make the work of police officers easier and legitimize interactions between individuals arrested and the police: with a public defender in the room, they would have an unlikely ally present to attest to the integrity of the arrest process. In addition, the ILF attorney can bear the burden of answering the client’s questions and calling family members. In our presentation, we pointed to the ILF’s Tunisia office as an example of success. To my knowledge, ILF Tunisia is the only public defender office in the world that has been able to implement an early access program successfully.

To my surprise, our presentation was met with resounding support from everyone present. Some of the police attendees expressed understandable concerns about how such a system would work in practice (Who do we call? How late can we call?) but overall, the message was: if you can make it work, we will support it. One detention representative expressed a belief that most of the clients in his overcrowded detention facilities are eligible for ILF representation and incarcerated simply because they don’t have an attorney to file a motion on their behalf to ask to be brought to court for a bail hearing. The police chief present ended the meeting seemingly invigorated to move the pilot forward.

I left the meeting, and my time in the West Bank, invigorated by the hope that the ILF could spearhead an international early access to counsel movement. If implemented effectively, the West Bank’s early right to counsel pilot could be a model for countries around the world to learn from and replicate. As they say in Arabic, insha’allah.

By: Zoë Root

Zoë is Senior Policy Counsel at the Justice Programs Office (JPO) and an Adjunct Instructor in the School of Public Affairs at American University. At JPO, she works on the Right to Counsel National Campaign and is the project director of the Juvenile Drug Treatment Court (JDTC) Initiative.

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