skip navigation
Home  |  About Us  |  Accessibility  |  CRIN Quiz  |  FAQs  |  Contact Us
CRIN - Child Rights Information Network
Children's rights
Information by country
CRIN Themes

Print this pageLegal Assistance for Children




Child Rights International Network

Resource type:

Publication (general)


This forms part of the Legal Assistance Toolkit for Children and Children's Rights Organisations. This section below is the first part. A link to the full guide in pdf format complete with the text of relevant international standards is available further down, as well as links to all chapters.

Download the complete Legal Assistance Toolkit for Children and Children's Rights Organisations, including the full text of relevant international standards, here.

Introduction / Children in conflict with the law / Children as victims / Children as witnesses / Children as complainants / Resources on legal assistance for children


Children who come into contact with the legal system will often need the assistance of a lawyer. Depending on the context, children may be entitled to receive legal advice or representation free of charge. The lawyer, government department, institution or organisation offering legal assistance will likely vary with a child's particular legal needs, and some of the ways in which children may seek to obtain legal assistance without cost are detailed below. Building on the concept of child-friendly justice, which calls for all legal systems to be adapted to the rights and special situation of children, this section explores some of the most common circumstances in which children may find themselves in need of legal assistance.

Back to top

Children in conflict with the law

Where children are suspected or accused of being in conflict with the law, they may be entitled to legal aid, which is free or subsidised legal assistance most often funded or provided by the government. Governments are obligated to provide this aid under the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 40), which stipulates that children accused of committing an offence have the right to legal or other appropriate assistance. The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (Article 14) and the Basic Principles on the Role of Lawyers (Principles 3, 6) further emphasise that legal assistance must be offered without charge as necessary to any person facing criminal proceedings, and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Administration of Juvenile Justice ("Beijing Rules"; Rules 7, 13, 15) clarify that children have both the right to counsel and the right to apply for free legal aid where this is available. The UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (Principles 3, 10, 11; Guideline 10) give more detail about children's right to legal aid, setting out the special measures that must be taken to ensure that children have meaningful access to legal aid.

Children who have already been arrested and detained have an even stronger entitlement to legal aid. In those circumstances, the Convention on the Rights of the Child (Article 37)  specifies that children have the right to promptly access legal assistance, and the UN Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners (Rule 93) provide that a child who has not yet been tried be permitted to apply for free legal aid where this is available.

In practice, however, the availability and quality of legal aid for children both in and out of detention varies dramatically within and across jurisdictions, and the options and procedures for procuring legal assistance for children in conflict with the law must be examined on a local level.

Back to top

Children as victims

Child victims of crime should be granted and are in some circumstances entitled to legal assistance free of charge. Internationally, the UN Guidelines on Justice in Matters involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime (Guidelines 19, 21, 22, 24), the UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power (Article 6) and the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (Principles 4, 11; Guideline 7) all dictate that child victims should receive access to appropriate support and assistance, including legal assistance, from their first moment of contact with the criminal justice process. In line with these instruments, child victims of crime who are asked to participate or give information in a criminal case will often receive some form of legal advice or representation to ensure that they are able to participate in a meaningful way.

Depending on the nature of the crime alleged, child victims may have a specific right to legal assistance. For example, child victims of abuse and neglect are generally entitled to or mandated to receive free legal representation in child protection proceedings, usually provided or funded by the government as with legal aid. In family court proceedings, courts will often appoint lawyers or advocates to represent a child's best interests, a child's wishes, or both. Child victims of other crimes may also be eligible to receive some form of legal assistance, but this may be contingent upon their participation in legal proceedings against the violator(s).

Back to top

Children as witnesses

In many jurisdictions, children can be asked to participate in legal proceedings to talk about things they have seen or experienced. This is commonly referred to as giving evidence, which is made up of facts that will help the court to reach a decision. A child giving evidence in a legal proceedings may to some extent receive legal assistance from the lawyer who has asked the child to do so. Most often this will be a prosecutor, a lawyer hired by the government to pursue a criminal case, but children can also be called as witnesses by a lawyer for a criminal defendant, or by any person's lawyer in a civil lawsuit.

It must be remembered, however, that these lawyers do not represent child witnesses directly, and may not always have their best interests at heart. Where a child has been asked to give evidence, independent legal assistance may also be available in some jurisdictions from government run victim support programmes or victims' rights organisations. Notably, the UN Guidelines on Justice in Matters involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime (Guidelines 19, 21, 22, 24, 25) and the UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (Principles 5, 11; Guideline 8) call on governments to provide support specialists for and, where necessary, to appoint guardians to protect the interests of children giving evidence.

Back to top

Children as complainants

Children whose rights have been violated may have greater difficulty in obtaining free legal assistance to file formal complaints with a court than when, as above, legal proceedings are initiated by someone else. Barriers to accessing justice can be many, and in some legal systems, children may need to obtain the consent and assistance of a parent or guardian before bringing a case. In others, they may not even be permitted to initiate legal proceedings at all.

Nonetheless, children have the right to take legal action where their rights have been violated, and to receive legal assistance both in determining what their options may be and in pursuing whatever course they may choose. Along these lines, the UN Guidelines on Justice in Matters involving Child Victims and Witnesses of Crime(Guidelines 20, 35, 36, 37) state that child victims should be informed of the ways they can obtain compensation from offenders or the government either as a part of or outside of criminal proceedings. The Rules further specify that these procedures be accessible and child-friendly, and that child victims receive reparations wherever possible.

The UN Declaration of Basic Principles of Justice for Victims of Crime and Abuse of Power (Articles 4, 5, 6, 8, 9) reaffirm that all victims have the entitlement to access justice and seek prompt redress, and that victims must be informed of their rights, given an opportunity to present their views and concerns, and be given assistance throughout the legal process. The UN Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems (Guideline 7) also ask governments to ensure that victims receive legal advice on any aspect of their involvement in criminal justice processes, including the option to bring a civil suit or to make a claim for compensation in a separate legal proceeding.

Given the many avenues that may be open for children to obtain reparations from those who violate their rights, it is important to seek clarity about the ways that children can draw attention to violations of their rights before heading to the courthouse. As outlined below, there are a number of ways that children might seek to access this information; these avenues are not exclusive, and it may make sense for children to explore all of their options before deciding whether or not to take formal legal action.

Local or national ombudspersons– individuals who have been asked by the government to handle complaints from the public about injustice and human rights – may be able to offer children some measure of free legal assistance. The UN Guidelines for the Prevention of Juvenile Delinquency (“Riyadh Guidelines”; Guideline 57) encourage governments to establish children's obmudspersons, many of which are able to offer basic legal advice and in some cases to receive complaints directly from children Children can also receive anonymous, confidential advice from a child helpline, which is an outreach service for children designed both to offer direct assistance to children and to link them with other helpful organisations and services.

In some jurisdictions, legally-focused NGOs, university-based legal clinics, or bar associations - groups that represent or regulate lawyers – may be able to give child victims of rights violations free or subsidised legal advice or representation. The types of work undertaken by these organisations vary widely, with some providing general legal services directly to individuals in a community and others taking only certain cases that line up with particular strategic aims or goals. Many of these organisations rely on volunteer lawyers for legal assistance, and in some instances lawyers may be willing to work with children directly to pursue legal action. These kinds of arrangements are described in relation to children's rights organisations in the section that follows.

Where children's rights have been violated in ways that might amount to a crime, they may also be able to obtain legal advice or assistance from law enforcement authorities. If a criminal case is eventually brought against the violator, children may eventually be entitled to receive some form of compensation. However, children bringing complaints directly to law enforcement may not have much control over the outcome of any investigation or legal proceeding, and are not likely to have access to a lawyer who will represent their views or interests free of charge. As above, child victims of crime might also consider contacting a victim's rights organisation, many of which can offer advocacy services and assistance in seeking compensation for harm caused.

Back to top

Resources on Legal Assistance for Children

International Bar Association

The International Bar Association (IBA) is an umbrella organisation that represents more than 45,000 lawyers and 200 national and local bar associations and law societies. The IBA offers a full global list of its member organisations, which can often indicate a good first point of contact with a professional legal association in a particular country or jurisdiction.

International Legal Aid Group

The International Legal Aid Group (ILAG) is a global network of legal aid specialists looking to ensure sound legal aid policy-making and to encourage discussion around international developments in the field. The ILAG website offers news, research resources, newsletters, and a selection of national reports on the state of legal aid.

Legal Aid Reformers' Network

The Legal Aid Reformers' Network (LARN) provides a forum for exchanging information and resources on legal aid and defence rights. LARN provides resources on both international legal aid standards and national legal aid systems, including overviews of legal aid in particular jurisdictions and the text of relevant laws.

A4ID Global Legal Aid Guide

The Global Legal Aid Guideprovides details on legal aid systems around the world, including the type of matter and type of applicant eligible for legal aid, the cost of service (if any), and the method by which to apply for assistance.

European Network of Ombudspersons for Children

The European Network of Ombudspersons for Children (ENOC) links independent offices for children from 29 countries in Europe, and also hosts a Global Network of Children's Ombudspersons. The ENOC website provides links to and information about these offices, and the network as a whole seeks to share information, approaches and strategies, as well as promoting the development of effective independent ombudspersons for children.

Children's Legal Protection Centres: A Good Practice Report

The African Child Policy Forum has published a report that describes the experience and practice of Children's Legal Protection Centres, which aim to promote and uphold children's rights by, among other things, providing legal advice and information to children about their rights, in-house couselling and referrals to appropriate services for child victims, and legal representation for certain cases that advance a Centre's overall goals.

Child Helpline International

Child Helpline International (CHI) is a global network of child helplines that work to protect the rights of children. CHI's mission is to advocate for and provide support to child helplines around the world, and the organisation maintains a public list of full contact information for each of its members.

Back to top

Other sections include:

Previous Publication (general) items

Organisation Contact Details:

Child Rights International Network
East Studio
2 Pontypool Place
Tel: +44 (0)207 401 2257

Last updated 19/06/2012 17:14:39

Please note that these reports are hosted by CRIN as a resource for Child Rights campaigners, researchers and other interested parties. Unless otherwise stated, they are not the work of CRIN and their inclusion in our database does not necessarily signify endorsement or agreement with their content by CRIN.

Have your sayHave your say!

Be the first to have your say! Do you have something to say about this item? Get it off your chest, by posting some feedback.

Click here to view feedback for all items.

RSS FeedRSS feed for this item