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Community advisers in Ukraine: a history of development

The history of Сommunity advisers development in the world dates back more than 50 years. This long international experience includes various models and approaches to the introduction of paralegal practices and the institutionalization of networks of paralegals in many countries. However, common to all states is a positive result in expanding the legal opportunities of their citizens, because paralegals successfully work alongside professional lawyers, providing the primary link of access to justice at the local level.

In Ukraine, the network of paralegals – community advisers – began to develop relatively recently. The need to start such a movement was determined by several factors.

First, many Ukrainian communities do not have free access to lawyers and professional lawyers. This applies primarily to remote mountain villages, small settlements, “dying” rural areas, vulnerable and closed communities, and low-income citizens. Due to the lack of specialists capable of providing legal assistance, people are forced to look for the necessary information elsewhere, which creates significant difficulties and leads to legal isolation.

In cases where there is an appropriate specialist in the community, there is a high risk of other problems and communication barriers, as traditional legal aid providers do not always take into account the specifics of working with the poor and vulnerable social groups. So quite often, the inability or unwillingness to communicate with difficult or low-income clients, arrogance towards people, the search for financial gain, complex legal terms, etc. become insurmountable obstacles to access to justice.

Secondly, Ukrainians mostly do not trust the legal system, do not seek advice from specialists, but look for ways to solve legal problems by circumventing the laws. At first, they try to solve the legal problem on their own, and when the situation has reached a dead end, they involve specialists to deal with the consequences of unsuccessful attempts. This is confirmed by numerous polls. Thus, according to the sociological research of legal needs and problems in Ukrainian communities, conducted by the Kyiv International Institute of Sociology and the expert group for the International Renaissance Foundation in 2018, in solving legal problems, Ukrainians first of all turn to their relatives, friends and acquaintances (37%), and only then seek answers to their questions from professional lawyers.

“For the integral democratic development of Ukrainian communities, access to justice for the entire population is extremely important. The state has taken a big step forward by implementing Free Legal Aid throughout Ukraine, but there was not enough information on how to use it and what issues to contact. There was a need for the development of a movement that would become a reliable primary source of relevant information for community residents and expand their legal opportunities,” emphasized Anna Ilashchuk, Head of the Association of the Community Advisers of Ukraine.

With this in mind, non-governmental organizations have initiated the development of the Paralegalses movement – active citizens who are ready to provide first legal aid in Ukrainian communities.

The first discussions regarding the implementation of the idea began in 2016 among experts at the initiative of the International Renaissance Foundation.

This is how Olga Galchenko, coordinator of the “Human Rights and Justice” program of the International Renaissance Foundation, who was at the origin of the development of the Paralegalses movement in Ukraine, tells about it:

“We assembled a team of specialists from various fields – human rights protection, legal aid, security, financial literacy, management, communications, decentralization, etc. For six months we regularly met and discussed what Ukrainian paralegals could be, what they should know and how they had to interact with other institutions for access to justice. We knew about the experience of other countries, such as Canada, South Africa, and Moldova, but we understood that each country should develop its own system and start from its own realities. The expert team developed the relevant training program, and some of the experts became the first trainers for paralegals. We also conducted the so-called ToT – training of trainers to expand the training base and be ready for a large-scale launch of training.”

Next, a competitive selection of the first paraligals took place. The key criteria for joining the movement were an active civic position, concern for problems in one’s community, as well as a constant desire for self-improvement. There was a separate requirement for the candidate’s educational specialization and profession.

“The first contest and selection of paraligals was very interesting: we tried to imagine a “portrait” of a Ukrainian paralegal – where he or she lives and what is interested in, where he or she works. Finally, the main criteria were activity in one’s community, the desire to develop and acquire new knowledge, authority and concern. We were also looking for people from small or remote communities, people who were not “professional” activists and who did not have a legal education (after all, a paralegal does not have to be a lawyer),” Olga Galchenko recalls.

In this way, the first group of paralegals was recruited, who underwent special training and started their activities at the end of 2017 in 13 regions of Ukraine.

The following year, in November, the First Forum of paralegals took place, at which a Memorandum on cooperation between paralegals was concluded. And on November 28, the international conference “Сommunity advisers ” was held, which brought together national and international experts in the field of law, representatives of the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine and the first Ukrainian paralegals to discuss the development of the Movement.

When the number of paralegals approached 100 people, and the paralegals themselves were ready to organize the community on their own, there was a need to create a public organization that would provide organizational support and network development.

“The expert team of the Foundation, which conducted the training, handed over the necessary materials and the program to the advisers, the founding meetings were held and the legal entity was registered. The main idea behind the creation of Association of the Сommunity advisers of Ukraine was for advisers to acquire subjectivity in the field of access to justice: the community of paralegals had to take its place next to other institutions that provide legal assistance and legal information in Ukraine,” Olga notes.

During the summer camp for paralegals in August 2019, a founding meeting was held at which representatives of various regions of Ukraine were delegated to establish a public organization and approve its charter. After that, on September 30, the NGO “Association of the Community Advisers of Ukraine” was registered, and thus it was the official beginning of the history of the network, which unites real drivers of social change and leaders of Ukrainian communities, always ready to help others in finding ways to solve their problems and needs.

“The development of a joint mission of the Association of the Сommunity advisers of Ukraine gave a new push, and also clearly outlined the tasks we set before ourselves. Today, ACAU develops rule of law in Ukraine and implements democratic changes in communities through the development of a capable network of community advisers. Our core values ​​are network, respect for human rights, independence, openness and transparency. We are open to cooperation, attract and train new community advisors, and access to the life processes of the organization is open to each of its participants,” Anna Ilashchuk emphasizes.

Today, 226 paralegals work in Ukraine. This is a dynamic and growing network community that has already managed to win the trust of various communities, villages and towns. After all, paralegals are those who stand closest to people – they communicate in an understandable language, understand difficulties and problems, are actively involved in the life of communities and perform their functions free of charge: they inform their neighbors about their rights, work on legal education, redirect people to qualified lawyers or relevant public organizations, accompany communities in solving issues related to the law, such as benefits, roads, education, construction, etc.

Paralegals are turned to for advice and help not only by individual citizens, but also by representatives of local authorities who need tips in the processes of reform, decentralization, communication, etc. In total, over the years, 5,609 appeals to advisers were recorded, who made more than 4,700 referrals to relevant specialists and bodies.

Paralegals can initiate and implement positive changes in their towns and villages and receive support from donors, the state and the community. And the NGO “Association of the Сommunity advisers of Ukraine” for its part contributes to these important social changes and initiatives, helps in the development of community advisors, and improves their qualifications.

“It is the support and development of the Paralegals ` competencies that has become the main vector of the organization’s strategic planning. As part of the network, paralegals continue to learn, strengthen their abilities and knowledge, they receive the necessary informational materials and technical support, direct access to leading experts and specialists,” Anna Ilashchuk says.

During the 3 years of its existence, the Association has become a powerful network, a national platform for the exchange of experience and sharing of algorithms for solving legal issues, as well as an authoritative organization in Ukraine, recognized in the world paralegal community.

“Paralegals exist in many countries, but perform different functions depending on the chosen system. In Moldova, paralegals are integrated into the work of the state system of free legal aid, in the USA they perform the role of assistant lawyers, in Canada they advise their communities and help vulnerable groups. For such a large country as Ukraine, where there is a diversity of communities, it was important to choose such a format that would ensure the independence and stability of community advisors. We were greatly helped by the decentralization reform, which returned budgets and decision-making to communities. Ideally, a paralegal is a person integrated into his community, who acts in the community and has the ability and desire to help others, inform and redirect to the appropriate authorities. For larger-scale projects, events, joint tasks and expanding the network of paralegals, there is the ACAU. I think that the Ukrainian format of work of paralegals will also be able to inspire other countries that are looking for ways to expand access to justice,” Olga Galchenko says.

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