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09.02.2010

Property issues, patients’ rights, fighting sexual harassment – all in a day’s work

   

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These are just some of the issues the KHPG Advice Centre deals with in its work. Ludmila Klochko recently gave an interview in which she spoke of the work of the Public Advice Centre in 2009. She mentions that the year brought one major change – they finally moved into comfortable premises.

During the year there were 1,735 approaches from members of the public for advice. She explains that there are some variations connected with specific directions in KHPG work, though these are not very significant. For example, KHPG has taken a prominent position on patients’ rights and there were 53 requests for advice in this area (3.5% of the total), as against 1% previously.

She notes that their Advice Centre is in a better position that those in many other cities. That’s both because Kharkiv is a big city and there are plenty of high-quality lawyers, and because it is one of the few cities where there are Legal Aid Centres for Criminal Cases. Such centres exist in seven districts of the city, with lawyers able to provide legal aid to those failing criminal prosecution. Whereas before when relatives came to us and we were only able to give the most general consultation (we simply don’t have the resources to support all such cases), we can now refer them to our colleagues. About 100 cases were referred on after initial consultation with us.

The KHPG Advice Centre cooperates with several specialized centres, for example, with the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union’s Strategic Litigations Fund. There have been some 10-15 cases where people received qualified assistance there, not only regarding criminal, but also civil, cases. There is also the Centre for Legal Support for Victims of Torture. If a person has been ill-treated by the police, we send them there, and if the case is likely to succeed, then it can go to the European Court of Human Rights. She explains that it is by no means always possible to prove that torture was used.

How do people find out about the Advice Centre?

30.4% - from the media. There was a lot of media coverage last year, and newspapers constant get in touch, quoting us as specialists.

8% (130 people) learned of the Advice Centre via the website. 23% learned about them from people they know. They are their best clients, she says, since they understand what they can do and don’t come expecting miracles.

Another 23% have approached them before over other issues, some over the last 10 years. Then 5.3% are advised to approach them by official bodies. Some official, for example, tells them they need to lodge a claim and should see a lawyer and they reply that they can’t afford a lawyer, and get sent to KHPG for help. 54 people, or 3.4% were referred to the Centre by other organizations.

Ludmila Klochko says that the Centres refer people depending where they live. So, for example, if somebody rings from Lviv because they’ve seen Arkady Bushchenko or Yevhen Zakharov on television, they’re given numbers of people to contact locally. People also see advertisements about the Centre’s work. And there have been travelling consultations to various populated areas.

New areas of work

Since September a specialist on housing and communal services has been working at the Centre, and there have been a huge number of approaches. On the day he sees people there is always a queue and the consultations are done so that everybody can hear since many have similar problems.

Ms Klochko explains that it’s hard to use simple terms like “winning” or “losing” a court case. You can win at one level, lose at the next two.

There are also, of course, a lot of consultations which do not result in court cases being launched. She mentions the case of a man who received his disability through an industrial accident yet had tried fruitlessly for years to prove this since there were no documents and the company he had been working for at the time had disappeared. KHPG took on the case and the court did in fact establish that the injuries had been caused at the workplace. It was quite incredible that in the end it was resolved in 20 minutes. The KHPG representatives had masses of substantiating evidence, but the judge stopped them saying it was obvious anyway. Yet all that was needed for the authorities, not because they begrudged the money but because the paperwork had to be in place.

There were also a fair number of people who approached the Advice Centre over resignations or dismissals. Last year a law was passed which allowed employment centres to not pay unemployment benefit to those who left by mutual consent. In April the Constitutional Court found this to be unconstitutional, and questions arose as to whether they would pay for the months in between or not. There were also a lot of requests for advice linked with dismissals or resignations from small or middle-level businesses which were not in a position to pay the money legally required, or simply went bankrupt. KHPG carried out mediation, and often succeeded in getting agreement without involving the court. Though in same brazen cases, court cases were needed.

She mentions that Svitlana Pomilyaiko was reinstated at work last year. Another aspect of the case involving Ms Pomilyaiko was covered here earlier. Two women, one of them Svitlana Pomilyaiko, were taken in for questioning after two computers went missing from their work. According to the women’s testimony, the two officers questioned them separately, trying to force both to make confessions. Svitlana was kicked and had a bag put over her head. Natalya also had tweezers used to press her nipples. Svitlana could hear her friend’s screams, yet neither woman signed a “confession”. They were released, but only after both signed statements that they had no criticism against the police. Both have medical reports from the hospital which they went to following their release. Only Svitlana Pomilyaiko decided to make a formal complaint. A criminal investigation was initiated only to be revoked by the Ordzhonikidze District Court in Kharkiv. This court ruling, however, was, on 7 May overturned by the Kharkiv Regional Court of Appeal, and the case has been sent back to a first instance court to be examined again.

Ludmila Klochko explains that the case was supported by two funds – the UHHRU Strategic Litigations Fund and the KHPG Fund for the Defence of Victims of Torture, and some of the work was done by lawyers free of charge. In court over her dismissal, she was represented by Oksana Stanislavska, one of the KHPG lawyers.

She mentions that with the same case they began a new area of work, regarding sexual harassment. She says that this is a difficult area and one that they need more practice on. They lost that part of the case, but believes it was a positive thing that the subject was raised and got attention in the media. At present there is a cassation appeal underway over the case.

Almost half of the KHPG cases are linked with property, inheritance and similar. These are problems normally between relatives. Ludmila explains the increase in such cases as being linked to the fact that previously people didn’t have property, and therefore didn’t experience the problems, whereas now virtually everybody has property. She says there is a huge divide between the Housing Code which has existed since Soviet times and the legal relations in society. This concerns ones own flats, flats jointly owned following privatization, flats bought, flats bought on a mortgage, etc. She mentions that three similar cases ended up with entirely different outcomes in the court. There are also terrible frauds involving housing, and people also fall victim due to folly or false economy.

The Centre is also approached by victims of crimes complaining of ineffective investigation or that the cases have long not been investigated. These made up about 10.4% of the approaches last year. There are ones linked with the right to life which are promising and it is very likely that there will be new judgments on them from the European Court of Human Rights. There has already been a judgment over the case of Muravskaya v. Ukraine, over a murder not investigated.

She mentions also the ones that are absolutely standard, such as non-payment of wages. On 18 September the European Court of Human Rights issued a pilot judgment over “Ivanov v. Ukraine”, which came into force two months later. The Government has been given a year to enforce all court judgments, otherwise all cases pertaining to the issue will be positively considered according to accelerated procedure, including the issue of compensation.

For four months a travelling Centre working in the Temnivska penal colony. Then they were refused access and went to court over it.

She mentions that businesspeople have started coming to them and says that they do not know these problems, but also stresses that they do not give people advice on circumventing the law. Last year they turned away 33 people, 2% of the overall number.

The number of appeals for assistance from military conscripts and their relatives has fallen considerably. Previously it was up to 5% of all appeals, whereas last year there were only 2 appeals, and 4 people in total. In one case a mother said her son was being subjected to hazing, but was not prepared to give any details at all, while in the second, conscripts said they were being forced to give testimony against their boss, but the level of coercion seemed unclear and did not involve beatings. Ludmila Klochko attributes this, in the first place, to the fact that the period of service has been reduced, and secondly that cases of abuse are treated seriously.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, with participation from KHPG, has issued booklets providing advice on what to do if you’re unlawfully dismissed, if they don’t pay wages, as well as information on various stages of criminal proceedings.

Abridged from an interview taken by Volodymyr Batsunov

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