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Public defenders key to legal reform

By 2012 anyone who is accused of a crime in Dubai will be given access to free legal counsel if they cannot afford to pay for their own.

The presumption of innocence is sound legal principle; it takes a good lawyer to make it mean something. Sadly in the UAE, access to legal aid has not always been a given, especially for the poor.

A plan being formulated by Dubai's Community Development Authority should help to close this gap. As The National reported yesterday, by 2012 anyone who is accused of a crime in the emirate will be given access to free legal counsel if they cannot afford to pay for their own.

"It will help many people who are innocent or have been wronged but do not have the financial means to appoint lawyers to plead their case," says Dr Ali al Jarman, the managing partner at Prestige Advocates and Legal Consultants in Dubai.

A defence should not be a luxury. The right of anyone accused of a crime to have their case argued competently in court is a fundamental component of a nation built on the rule of law.

The next step will be to extend Dubai's initiative to judicial systems in other emirates. Officials should be encouraged to find federal solutions along these same lines, if they are not considering them already.

Local law firms can also play a role. By assigning younger associates to pro bono cases, young talent can improve their understanding of the country's laws, while helping to increase the availability of free counsellors. It's encouraging that some firms have already offered their services to the CDA. More should step up.

Providing everyone access to lawyers is an important reform that may also help to resolve other uncertainties about a defendant's rights. For instance, not everyone who is arrested and held by police is immediately granted legal counsel, an oversight that can leave suspects in prison for weeks without charge. A competent defence would challenge these and other policies.

The British businessman Ryan Cornelius, who was arrested three years ago on charges of bank fraud in Dubai, told Bloomberg news earlier this year that in his case, the judicial system appeared "suspended in its own inefficiency". Mr Cornelius can undoubtedly afford an attorney. Many others cannot. As the CDA has recognised, access to counsel for every defendant is just one step in the longer road to legal reform.

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