Movement forward on legal aid
From the New Year state centres will be providing free legal aid. Defence lawyers are promised decent pay for representing the interests of low-income Ukrainians.
As well as assisting people in courts, in civil cases, for example, they will also defend people charged with a crime or detained if they don’t have the money to pay for a lawyer. Such systems were originally piloted in several oblasts, now they will be working in all regions.
Vitaly Bayev, Director of the Legal Aid Coordination Centre says that everything is essentially ready and that there will be 27 such centres, one in each oblast. They are developed a target programme in order to extend the network.
Legal aid was available in criminal proceedings earlier however lawyers had to provide the assistance, while receiving totally symbolic pay, and seldom had much interest in providing effective assistance.
Aigul Mukanova, Director of the Ukrainian Legal Aid Foundation, explains that under these circumstances lawyers’ input was often confined to simply being present, or sometimes they were on the side of the investigators. She points out that such disregard for their obligation to provide legal aid led to numerous applcations to the European Court of Human Rights.
In order to change the situation, six years ago human rights organizatons with financial support from the International Renaissance Foundation set up experimental legal aid centres in Kharkiv, Khmelnytsky and Bila Tserkva. In these centres the best lawyers from the area worked, not on contract, and not because they were forced to, but for decent remnuneration.
The experiment was a success and it was used as the basis for a draft law drawn up NGOs and the Justice Ministry. Now such centres will be funded by the state and work in all oblasts.
Natalia Bahina, lawyer from the Khmelnytski pilot centre, says that the police and investigators expected them to simply sign the necessary documents and were stunned when they refused. She adds that there was also a lot of distrust since they were providing free assistance “however all that’s behind us”/ Ms Vahina is now the head of the State Legal Aid Centre for the region.
Each centre has made up a register of lawyers and signed contracts with some lawyers chosen on a competitive basis. The lawyers’ pay will be about 30% more than it was previously. The budget for this year has around 28 million UAH set aside to pay lawyers. At present Mr Bayev says, it’s hard to know how much will actually be needed, this depending on how many people are detained, and how the lawyers work.
The main concern is that there won’t be enough funding which will negate the effect of this innovation. Lawyers will simply terminate their contracts. The Coordination Centre is hoping that the government will review the level of funding on the basis of the first month’s work.
Human rights groups have also expressed concern over the selection process. Marina Hovorukhina from the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union says that they didn’t have enough lawyers on the register and so they took all and there are doubts about the quality of their work.
The Coordination Centre says that there will be special assessment commissions. Ms Vahina says that the government is commissioning the services and therefore has the right to check the quality of these services. She stresses, however, that it is vital that state bodies do not interfere with the lawyers’ work.
Certain groups will be provided with such legal aid in all circumstances – minors as well as people charged with serious offencies. In other cases they will be brought in if people cannot afford lawyers. From 2014 this legal aid will also be available for people accused of administrative offences.