Is there any legal mechanism for a citizen without resources, to be able to sue the state for infringing his/her constitutional rights? In Argentina for example, I know there is a "defensor del pueblo" at national and provincial level, but as far as I know, he acts by his own and not by petitions besides they are a few for so many people.

I don't know if here questions can be asked about how it is for more than one country, my interest is worldwide and more particularly Latin American countries, since certain types of freedom of speech/beliefs/equality under the law, fair trial, etc. abuses, and constitutional violations by part of international lobbys inserted and exercising its influence from inside of the states are seen across most western countries.


5 Answers 5


In the US, there are a number of non-government organizations which take on such cases, such as the ACLU or the Institute for Justice; individual law firms may also take such cases pro bono. There is no automatic right to free representation in case a constitutional issue is alleged, so if IJ doesn't like your case they won't take it. These are private organizations: there is no general government agency that one can call on, other than the Public Defender's office in case you are charged with a crime and can't afford legal defense. (A constitutional issue may arise in a case that a PD might handle, but you can't e.g. call on the public defender to sue the government for infringing your 2nd Amendment rights.) A state attorney general could file suit against the US government over a constitutional issue, as Washington's AG did in the case of the Trump travel executive order, where the underlying issues were constitutional. An individual might inspire a state AG to take on an issue, but the AG would be representing the interests of the state, broadly, and not individual interests.

  • 7
    Correct as far as it goes under U.S. law, although generally a party who successfully establishes that his constitutional rights were violated in a lawsuit and vindicates those rights in court is entitled to an attorneys' fee award after the fact. So, attorneys are often willing to take such cases in the U.S. on a contingent basis.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 7, 2017 at 16:33

Situation in Germany: unless you are charged with a crime (where other rules apply, but you will have access to a lawyer), you may apply and be granted Prozesskostenhilfe (PKH, assistance for law suit costs). Criteria are:

  • low income, low wealth
  • not a nuisance suit
  • sufficient reason to suggest that the suit is winnable

Towards the latter two points, the opposing party may give a written statement. Even the cost of having a lawyer help you prepare the application for PKH may be recovered.

Lawyer fees are regulated overall. In particular, for a mandate involving PKH, the fees are lower, so one may argue that access to a good/successful lawyer may be more difficult. Importantly, in the lowest courts (though your suit may only be fileable in a higher court), you do not necessarily need a lawyer - in higher courts, you do. Some cases, especially involving Welfare/Social Assistance, are won by plaintiffs on their own.


In France, there is an institution known as the Council of State, that is charged with monitoring and supervising the government bureaucracy of France. In France you can very inexpensively fill out a form easily available in retail stores that explains your dispute with the government in plain language accompanied by a nominal fee.

The Council of State (which is staffed with top graduates of arguably the most prestigious university in the nation), then assigns one senior civil servant who is basically a public law lawyer to represent the interests of the person complaining, another lawyer from the same pool to represent the interests of the state, and a very senior official or tribunal of very senior officials to hear their arguments and resolve the complaint. All of these officials work at state expense. The litigating public law lawyers are sometimes call "barristers" and like barristers do not consistently represent the state or the individual side of the conflicts. They have the title Counsel at Senior Court (avocat aux Conseils).

If the citizen complaint arises from a systemic problem then officials charged with resolving the dispute have the authority to change the policies involved and to direct the government agency to systemically remedy the harm to all persons similarly affected, as well as to the complaining party.

Some countries in the civil law tradition have similar institutions modeled on the French Council of State, although they are often not implemented as well and are often not implemented with such top notch talent.

A less vigorous approach to obtaining redress for individual citizens from harms done to them by the government is the Scandinavian office of the Ombudsman who has access to government agencies and persuasive power to sort out complex problems and encourage agencies to do the right thing, but not the power to bring suit or enforce a legal remedy.

In the U.S., constituent service staff members of elected officials (e.g. Congressmen) and prominent news media reporters often carry out a similar role and some large institutions do have an actual Ombudsman (e.g. the U.S. Internal Revenue Service has the U.S. Taxpayer Advocate who has an Ombudsman role). Another role in many U.S. government agencies with more formal authority than an Ombudsman is an "Inspector General" of an agency that monitors the agency to see if it is complying with the law. In a law enforcement agency, this would be called an "Internal Affairs" division.

  • It's rather strange that you made an answer about France without mentioning the Défenseur des droits (literally, Defender of the rights) once. The Conseil d'État is a court, whereas the Défenseur des droits is the one actually tasked with defending citizens' rights (in front of the Conseil d'État, which is impartial, like any court).
    – user7050
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 17:37
  • @NajibIdrissi Thanks for mentioning that. Excellent point.
    – ohwilleke
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 18:24

In Austria there’s the Volksanwaltschaft (roughly translates to "lawyers for the people", official English name "The Austrian Ombudsman Board"), which consists of three lawyers who are selected by the National Council for six years. They cannot be voted out, recalled or removed from office. The ombudspersons are sworn in by the Federal President.

You can fill a complaint there if you feel you have been treated unfairly. Your case is then reviewed and appropriate actions will be taken if necessary.

The Volksanwaltschaft is embodied in the Austrian Federal Constitution:

Article 148a. (1) Everyone can lodge complaint with the Ombudsman Board (Commission for Complaints from the Public) against alleged maladministration by the Federation, [...] mainly for alleged violation of human rights [...]. All such complaints must be investigated by the Ombudsman Board. [...]

Their task is to scrutinise the public authorities and ensure the observance of the human rights.

To ensure the observance of human rights, the Volksanwaltschaft has many entitlements, including the right to visit any place where imprisonment may take place and take a look at files.

Note, however, that the Volksanwaltschaft primarily issues recommendations:

Article 148c. The Ombudsman Board can issue to the authorities [...] recommendations on measures to be taken in or by reason of a particular case. [...] [T]he authority concerned must within a deadline to be settled by federal law either conform to the recommendations [...] or state in writing why the recommendations have not been complied with. The Ombudsman board may in a specific case at the occasion of a certain case request a deadline to cure the delay by a court (Art. 148a para 4) and suggest measures of supervisory control.

Furthermore, there’s a television programme aired by the national broadcasting service ORF which reports about the cases dealt with by the Volksanwälte (the lawyers), who also come to the studio to comment on the case. (The latest issue can be found online.)

There’s an official English website where you can learn more about the Volksanwaltschaft.

Constitution translations were taken from here.

  • 1
    The most interesting legal medium to control a state that I've seen until now
    – Pablo
    Commented Apr 8, 2017 at 13:04

In South Africa the constitutional court (highest authority on legal matters) is open to anyone, free of charge, with no legal training required. If the court decides the case can be "taken on" then they will provide representation if the person cannot afford it.

(IANAL, this is my civilian perspective)

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