Access to justice

UNICEF is the region’s leading advocate for juvenile justice reform, but our approach goes beyond care for children accused of crimes: we also promote equitable access to justice for all children whose rights have been violated.

A 17-year-old boy hangs onto a fence at a detention centre where he has spent the last 19 months. He is only half way through his sentence.
UNICEF/UN040513/Pirozzi

The challenge

The pursuit of justice for some children in Europe and Central Asia remains hampered by a lack of access to fair justice systems that will make decisions in their best interests.

Children in the region who are already marginalized and disadvantaged, such as those from Roma communities, from poor families and others, are more likely than other children to have their rights violated. Yet they are less likely to seek – or find – support and help. They are more likely to be placed in detention, which is often the end result of a long trail of exclusion and lack of effective child protection services to address any family problems.   

Marginalized children lack information and redress.

Children from poor family backgrounds receive less information than others about their rights, are less likely to seek redress and have greater difficulties in paying for lawyers, court fees and transportation. Children with disabilities lack the communication aids and targeted support that would make it possible for them to participate in justice processes, while children from ethnic minorities, including Roma, experience stigma. 

In parts of the region, such as Central Asia, girls are more isolated than boys and therefore receive less information, while social norms make it even less acceptable for them to come forward in cases of abuse. 

Children deprived of liberty face severe risks.

Children who come into conflict with the law are often seen as less ‘deserving’ than others, with their individual circumstances rarely taken into account. Most children under arrest in the region have been accused of petty or non-violent offences, and some are placed in ‘protective custody’, even though depriving children of their liberty should always be the very last resort. 

Adolescent boys are more likely to be in juvenile detention facilities or to come into conflict with the law than adolescent girls. However, while there are fewer girls in the justice system, there are also fewer services and female police officers to meet their needs.   

All children under arrest or in detention are at risk of severe violations of their rights. They may experience violence and even torture, with few opportunities to report these violations to authorities.

Children living behind closed doors, away from their families and often without external oversight, depend on the goodwill of those in charge and are among the most isolated and invisible young people in society. 

Children deprived of liberty – whether they are in residential care or detention – have few ways to speak out about, or report, any abuses.The chances of their reintegration into the community after such experiences are slim, increasing the risk of life-long poverty and exclusion. 

The solution

UNICEF is the region’s leading advocate for equitable access to justice for all children whose rights are being violated. 

We believe that the best way to guarantee a child’s access to justice is to adapt justice and social welfare systems to their rights and needs. 

UNICEF promotes equitable access to justice for all children, whether they are offenders, victims or witnesses. We promote new and more child-friendly approaches to justice across the region, characterized by a focus on all children – boys and girls – caught up in the justice system. 

We also support tailored responses for every child whose rights are violated. This includes children accused of crimes, where loss of liberty should be the last resort and full rehabilitation into society the ultimate aim. 

Our work includes advocacy and support for legislative and policy reform and the development of alternatives to child detention.

UNICEF contributes to progress on the number of children in detention. 

UNICEF’s determination to reduce the rates and length of juvenile detention has helped narrow the equity gap in juvenile justice. Our work contributed to the 60 per cent fall in the number of children in detention between 2006 and 2012, according to a 2014 independent evaluation of progress on juvenile justice in the region.