The Office of Staff Legal Assistance (OSLA) was established by the United Nations General Assembly at its sixty-sixth session (2008). (1) On July 1, 2009, OSLA opened its doors and immediately inherited 350 case files from the former United Nations justice system. Eventually, OSLA filled its seven lawyer posts, three based in New York, and one each in Nairobi, Beirut, Geneva, and Addis Ababa. In addition to budgeted legal officer posts, OSLA is authorized and encouraged to work with volunteer and pro bono legal counsel and legal interns. The Office also has three administrative staff positions in New York who service all OSLA staff.
Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 63/253 of December 24, 2008, OSLA's role is to provide legal advice and representation to staff members (including former staff members or affected dependents of staff members) who wish to appeal an administrative decision or who are subject to disciplinary action. OSLA is independent from the United Nations staff unions, management, or other actors, and its counsel have a primary responsibility to act in the interest of the client staff member, former staff member, or affected dependent of a staff member. (2) The United Nations has a long tradition, dating from 1956, for establishing "a panel of staff members ... qualified to act as counsel for appellant" under the former UN justice system. However, OSLA represents the first time the General Assembly established an internal "Legal Aid Office" with full-time qualified lawyers to advise and represent United Nations staff.
OSLA provides legal assistance to UN staff in a range of areas of law including disciplinary matters, employment contracts (from non-appointment to termination), discrimination/harassment, pension benefits and other entitlements, and administrative law more generally. OSLA lawyers have represented United Nations employees and former employees throughout the world at all levels of the organization, from general services to Assistant Secretary-General. To date, the Office has provided legal advice and representation to over 2,000 staff worldwide.
In its first year of operation, OSLA assisted over 890 staff members to resolve and conclude employment-related grievances and disciplinary matters in the United Nations internal justice system, and the Office provided summary legal advice to 430 individuals. OSLA currently has an active caseload of 600 files. Over 60,000 UN staff worldwide are subject to the jurisdiction of the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) and United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT). While concern has been expressed that the volume of litigation under the new UN justice system may increase, to date it is estimated that three out every 1,000 staff have brought a claim to court, while many more cases are settled or resolved with OSLA's assistance.
The need to establish an internal justice system for a global body such as the United Nations is extremely important. The absence of a well-functioning and sustainable legal system could lead to national courts getting involved in United Nations affairs, which would expose the organization to costly, irregular, and divergent domestic adjudication, which in turn could undermine the privileges and immunities the United Nations enjoys under international law. (3)
Other reasons why the United Nations needs an internal justice system is to ensure that all staff, regardless of nationality or location, are subject to the same rules and regulations. As a result of the organization's privileges and immunities, staff generally cannot sue the United Nations in local courts, but if the system did not exist, local courts would start hearing UN employment cases, particularly if they raised issues of national interest such as human rights concerns. (4) Another consideration is that the United Nations is its own island of jurisdiction with a specialized and often complex body of rules and administrative issuances which requires both the administration and staff to have legal counsel who have a firm understanding of how the system works. …