The official magazine of international civil servants since 1949

La revue officielle des fonctionnaires internationaux depuis 1949



You are not alone: OSLA will assist you
An explorative journey to discover and describe the role of the Office of Staff Legal Assistance (OSLA)
8 Apr 2021

OSLA provides confidential legal advice, assistance and representation to staff members of the Secretariat, agencies, funds and programs in relation to their contracts of employment, at no fee to the staff member.

OSLA’s work is enormously varied, often it involves simply responding to queries about how the rules should apply in a specific situation. We also represent staff members at all stages of the internal justice system, from the management evaluation request, to the United Nations Dispute Tribunal (UNDT) and the United Nations Appeals Tribunal (UNAT) proceedings, as well as challenges to other recourse bodies and responses by staff to allegations of misconduct.

With a client base of approximately 76,000 staff members, OSLA legal officers are kept busy. In addition to funding by the General Assembly, a voluntary funding scheme has allowed OSLA to increase its staffing with additional posts. This has significantly enhanced our capacity to provide services to staff. We encourage all staff to contribute.

Is it about litigation?

Staff sometimes think of OSLA’s work as being exclusively about litigation. However, we resolve many disputes informally prior to or during litigation. Settlement is always a more elegant and less stressful way to resolve a conflict, so we prioritize this whenever possible.

Often our work is simply providing informed advice to allow staff members to make considered choices about how to approach the sort of obstacles and challenges that can arise in any employment relationship.

In providing representation to staff to contest a specific decision in the formal justice system, as in many national free “legal aid” systems we apply a merits test and only offer representation if we find the case has a reasonable chance of success. Representing staff in every case, regardless of merit, is not desirable or practical. This would divert valuable resources from providing effective representation to staff members with cases that have a reasonable chance of success. The decision to accept or decline representation is one that is taken very seriously and can present a difficult exchange with the staff member approaching our office.

Staff members request representation through our online platform. They provide a chronology of what has happened in their case and upload relevant documents including evidence of what has occurred. In all but the most clear-cut cases the legal officer to whom the case is assigned will contact the client to discuss the situation. They will explore the evidence available to prove the case, conduct necessary research regarding the law and approach of the Tribunals and explain this to the client. Once the legal officer has determined the facts, law and evidence for a particular matter, an analysis with a recommendation as to whether to represent is sent to the Chief of OSLA for a decision. If OSLA declines representation after a rigorous assessment of the case, the legal analysis is explained to the client.

How does the procedure work?

The jurisdiction of the Tribunals is procedurally rigorous in terms of deadlines, the definition of a reviewable decision, the scope of review and burden of proof on the Applicant. This means that OSLA lawyers sometimes have to give disappointing news to staff members in situations where they feel justifiably aggrieved.

The decision not to represent staff does not prevent the staff member from representing themselves, being represented by another staff member or retaining private counsel. OSLA can still provide support to a staff member who decides to self-represent, including providing advice on jurisdictional or procedural matters, applicable time limits, among other matters.

The outcome of each case depends on its particular circumstances. It is possible that previously unknown facts or evidence are later disclosed which can have an impact on the outcome of a case. For this reason, where a staff member who has been declined representation identifies new evidence previously not provided to OSLA, we can review and reconsider the previous decision not to offer representation.

With OSLA’s additional resources, a decision was taken to represent all staff members who approach OSLA with responses to allegations of misconduct. This approach is because staff facing allegations of misconduct are obliged to engage in a procedurally rigorous and complex legal process, with potentially detrimental consequences, including termination of their appointments and damage to their reputation. If a finding of misconduct is eventually made, staff have the right to contest that finding and any sanction before the Tribunals. Since this is a positive choice, OSLA applies a merits test to any litigation before the UNDT or UNAT to contest disciplinary findings.

In conclusion, we encourage staff to come to us for expert advice on what recourse mechanisms are available for resolving disputes arising out of their contracts of employment. OSLA’s experienced Lawyers are available to provide effective, confidential and independent advice to staff.

The role is to represent all staff members who approach OSLA with responses to allegations of misconduct.
* Robbie Leighton is a lawyer at Office of Staff Legal Assistance (OSLA).
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