“In cases involving capital punishment, it is axiomatic that the accused must be effectively assisted by a lawyer at all stages of the proceedings”.

The UN Human Rights Committee. General Comment no. 36 on the right to life.  


Access to an effective defence in death penalty cases is critical. In early June 2021, we hosted an online webinar focused on the American Bar Association (ABA) 2003 guidelines for lawyers taking death penalty cases. Robin M. Maher, former Director of the ABA Death Penalty Representation Project and Emily Olson-Gault, current Director, shared their experience in developing and, now, monitoring the guidelines in the United States with participants from across Asia. We were joined by lawyers, scholars and NGOs from China, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Pakistan and Taiwan as well as Australia.

The guidelines provide a minimum standard for lawyers taking death penalty cases. They have helped lawyers to improve and influenced changes in the law. Asked what the biggest impact had been on capital case representation, both experts agreed that legal teams, which bring a range of experience and expertise to life and death cases, had brought about the most improvement.  The increased quality of defence representation has contributed to the decline in the use of the death penalty in the U.S.

The effectiveness of the defence depends not only on the competence of the lawyer, but also the context in which legal assistance is provided. Judicial secrecy leaves lawyers unable to access information vital to provide an effective defence for their client. As part of our advocacy on the use of the death penalty, we recently responded to a call for submissions to the UN Secretary-General. Our paper focused on the consequences of the lack of transparency in the application and imposition of the death penalty on the enjoyment of human rights in China.  Lack of transparency has an impact on the rights of those facing execution, their families and wider society.

The Rights Practice is now leading a multi-year EU-funded project to promote the right to effective defence in death penalty cases in Asia. We are working with NGOs, lawyers and academics across Asia to understand the role of lawyers and the obstacles to more effective defence.

Due to ongoing travel restrictions, engagement has been taking place online. A series of virtual workshops are helping us to build a network among researchers and practitioners. Participants have come from across Asia and have generously shared background knowledge on the death penalty situation in their respective countries, and discussed the challenges and value of more in-depth research. We will shortly be launching a programme of national studies building on a shared methodology.

This is an ongoing project and we hope to help strengthen a network of individuals and organisations working on effective defence and the death penalty across Asia. To learn more about, or to get involved, please do reach out to us: [email protected]