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Evolution of Free Legal Aid, or How Partner Organisations of the LDN Help Improve Access to Justice in Communities

Halyna Kolesnyk, the Communications Manager of the Legal Development Network

Despite the wide network of free legal aid (FLA), which includes more than 500 points of access to the state-guaranteed FLA, some people cannot use it.

According to the sociological studies WJP global insights on acccess to justice, almost 50% of people in Ukraine have had at least one legal issue for the last two years, which is approximately 20 million people who have needed certain legal support. Only the governmental network of free legal aid ers works consistently in Ukraine. According to this agency report for 2020, its capacity is up to a million people a year. However, it satisfies only one-tenth of the actual demand. This fact cannot be ignored since there will be more and more people in need of legal aid in the future, and the free legal aid centers will be unable to handle the flow of even those clients who will physically attend their offices. “To avoid that, the local authorities must start working in two directions: to enhance people’s readiness to resolve their legal issues legally, and to create the mechanism for satisfying the demand for legal aid at the local level,” says Vitalii Okhrimenko, the Program Manager of the Legal Development Network, in his comment on the implementation of the Programme for Providing Free Legal Aid to the Residents of the Khmilnyk Municipality for 2021-2022.

The document’s co-authors, Pravo (Right/Law) NGO from Khmilnyk in Vinnytsia Region and Khmilnyk City Council, have been inspired by participation in The Human Rights Friendly Community Program.

“It’s truly rare. In 2020, the partner organizations of the Legal Development Network studied access to justice in 15 communities in Luhansk and Donetsk Regions. There are no programs like that in any of them. The program of Khmilnyk is a comprehensive local-level solution for the challenges associated with people’s limited access to justice. Such restrictions also include the low level of participation of the central and local authorities in provision of the primary legal aid, the imbalance in the funding of the free legal aid system, and the conservative approach of the governmental of the free legal aid system to the satisfaction of the people’s legal needs in connection with access to justice,” notes Yevgen Poltenko, the Executive Director of the Legal Development Network.

Photo: Consultations on  the draft Program for Providing Free Legal Aid to the Residents of the Khmilnyk Municipality held in Khmilnyk City Council in March 2021. Photo from the website of the Khmilnyk City Council.

The Program for Providing Free Legal Aid to the Residents of the Khmilnyk Municipality for 2021-2022 (hereinafter the “Program”) contains the comprehensive analysis of the challenges, the most efficient mechanisms that enable increasing people’s awareness of their rights and remedies for legal issues. To improve the human rights friendliness of the community, the Program provides for the specific system for continuous tracing of the challenges and improvement of the mechanism via the social dialogue.

How It Started

The Program embodied the experience gained by the study team made of the representatives of Pravo NGO, Khmilnyk City Council, and Khmilnyk Governmental Bureau of Free Legal Aid since 2019 as a participant of the Human Rights Friendly Community Program. It studied the legal needs of the residents of the Khmilnyk City Territorial Community (TC).

“Following the study, we created the road map and found out that the International Renaissance Foundation announced the competition. We decided to apply with the project Creating the Free Legal Aid System in the Khmilnyk Community, which was made based on our road map, and obtained support and financing. According to our road map, we wanted to improve legal awareness of the public. After the consolidation, Khmilnyk municipality was joined by 41 rural settlements, including the ones located in the other district. Everything d for many residents, and they do not know where to go to resolve certain legal issues. Another direction was mitigation of legal barriers. We zed the community’s regulatory legal framework, and, where inconsistency was found, offered solutions. For instance, we found out that the jurisdiction of the Municipal Improvement Rules or the Charter of the Territorial Community did not cover the entire territorial community. We managed to influence more than 20 local policies and regulations. The third direction is the dialogue with the authorities about specific issues. We are still monitoring posts and comments in social media. If there is some discussion, we initiate a round table for the stakeholders. We have managed to make changes employing their results, from the regulations on the public budget up to, for instance, outdoor trade in our community,” says Vitalii Dorokh, the Head of Pravo NGO, an expert and a trainer.

However, the study findings themselves were not enough. Thus, the activists decided to hold additional focus group studies. They involved representatives of the non-governmental organisations, the police, and the city council officials. The free legal aid program was created after all the persistent issues had been summarised.

Program Already in Effect

The document adopted in May 2021 is already being implemented. An example of such implementation is the establishment of school mediation services where children can resolve conflicts amicably and achieve consent and are taught how to use legal tools. The practical actions include establishing a network of paralegals and engagement of village elders in consulting. The introduction of these tools to simplify access to justice is a response to the challenges identified in the community during the study. In particular, the study showed that the residents of the 41 settlements mentioned above in the Khmilnyk Community were not aware of the free legal aid system and other remedies to defend their rights. In general, the remote settlements in the community suffer from certain legal isolation.

Photo: School students and their mentors studying at the mediation school. Photo from the website of Pravo NGO.

“Training of the mediators who would work in the school mediation services at three local schools was over at the end of August, 2021. Sixteen school students and their mentors, practicing psychologists, participated in this training.

Moreover, the third training session for fifteen paralegals who would provide primary legal aid was completed. Also, the village elders were also engaged owing to the primary legal aid process owing to the updated community regulations on the village elders,” says Vitalii Dorokh.

“I’ve noticed that following the training the village elders have a better understanding of the statutory activity of the community, peculiarities of operation of the free legal aid system and, which is very important, general key aspects of communication with the community,” says Nataliia Mazur, the Head of the Information Activity and Public Relations Department of the Khmilnyk City Council.

The Program also provides an increase in the level of trust in the governmental and local authorities since lack of trust is the main barrier that prevents the people from resolving their legal issues.

“The tasks of the Program include making residents of the community better aware of the activity of the Khmilnyk City Council and its executive bodies. The study we had performed before the Program was created helped us identify the principal legal issues that worry people: the three most common ones included consumer rights, medical services, and employment relations. Most information in our channels is now focused on these issues,” notes Nataliia Mazur.

We are also analyzing the regulatory framework of the local authorities, including the local regulations. One of the local resolutions that pertained to the regulations was revoked as a result of the consultations and meetings of the workgroups. We are improving access to public information in the form of open data that are administered by the local authorities,” says Vitalii Dorokh.

Owing to the Program, the teachers of Law will be able to improve their knowledge and skills in connection with human rights and access to justice and share them with their students. In its turn, it will help the children establish consistent basic competences as to human rights and develop the habit to defend them. Owing to this approach, the children will develop the need for justice, the readiness to take proactive actions, and the skills of actual involvement in the community life.

“The Khmilnyk Community is an example of actual practical application of the tools that simplify access to justice and are subordinated to human needs according to the people-centered approach. The Khmilnyk Program is an example of people-centered justice for the entire Ukraine. However, it is important to understand that the tools used in this Program are not a uniform solution suitable for all the communities. It is only an example of the right vector of movement. Every community must find its own path based on common approaches and principles. Each model imposed will turn into a formality with no necessary effect.

We understand that Khmilnyk must succeed in the Program. The next step that has not been stipulated in the document yet maybe a focus on engaging people into the improvement of the rules and procedures at the local level, including the efforts to expand the practice of using local democracy tools, such as public forums, electronic petitions, public hearings, consulting and advisory bodies, local initiatives, residents’ access to meetings of the collegial bodies, participation budget, citizens’ addresses, controlling and supervisory bodies, etc.,” sums up Vitalii Okhrimenko.

Practice from the Other Parts of the Country

The Khmilnyk initiative is not the only one. The Human Rights Friendly Community Program has helped create the “eco-system for access to justice” in several other communities in different regions, including Khmelnytskyi and Kyiv.

Anastasiia Ploshchynska, the representative of the study team from Khmelnytskyi Region and Executive Director of Podilska Pravova Liha (Podillia Law League) NGO, says that the participation in the Human Rights Friendly Community Program opened up new opportunities: the organization had not developed local programs and policies in such a consistent manner before.

After the program training, they studied the legal needs in the Oleshyn Community, which ceased to exist soon following its consolidation with the other community. Nevertheless, Podilska Pravova Liha still performs awareness raising, legal education, and legal aid activities there.

The knowledge gained was used in another study of the legal needs of the residents of Zhvanets Territorial Community. When they had received funding from the International Renaissance Foundation and expert support within the Human Rights Friendly Community Program, they developed the local program for free legal aid. The program provides for legal aid during on-site visits, designation of the special office at the premises of the Zhvanets Village Council for on-site consultation by the lawyers engaged in the project and the specialists of the governmental free legal aid centers.

The program is one of the first reliable steps of the local authorities to create conditions for access of the community residents to justice. No funds have been allocated to finance the program yet, but prospects are. At present, the program is being implemented at the expense of the stakeholders under partnership and cooperation conditions,” says Anastasiia Ploshchynska.

Within the program, the human rights defenders from the Khmelnytskyi Region also use video conference consulting, which simplifies the access of the residents of the remote settlements to legal aid.

Photo: Presentation of the study of the gender-based violence in Uzyn (Kyiv Region).

Participation in the Human Rights Friendly Community Program has brought the zation called Pravova Yednist (Legal Unity) from Bila Tserkva to a considerably higher level since it has developed an understanding of the need to study legal needs and advocacy skills. The knowledge gained has been used in several studies, including beyond the program.

“When we learned how to conduct a study at quite a fundamental level, we managed to become persuasive in the community. We studied the legal and security issues in the Uzyn TC at a good level, and we have also studied domestic violence issues this year. You can’t have the full-scale dialogue with the authorities until the community requests are recorded in a certain manner,” says Olha Nastina, the organization’s lawyer.

Presentation of the gender-based violence study findings was quite hard-hitting because the organization had engaged all the local services, including the Labour and Social Protection Department of the Uzyn Territorial Community.

“We “legalized” our relations with the authorities and obtained the opportunity to have the dialogue with the decision-makers as equal parts,” says Olha Nastina.

“We were in Bila Tserkva today and discussed the matter of gender-based violence. The local human rights defenders conducted the study. The police officers presented the statistics. The governmental free legal aid system lawyers shared their practical experience and advice. One of the victims, the brave woman, told about her painful experience. During all those three hours of the event, I had a weird feeling that I was in an average democratic European country where the community did hear its residents, and the authority supported smart people-centered approaches. It could be because of the pleasant and tidy environment or adequacy of representatives of different institutions or friendly and sensitive atmosphere: I reminded myself again in Bila Tserkva today that Ukraine is Europe. I wish I could have this feeling more often, not only a few hours a day,” says Olha Halchenko, the Coordinator of the Human Rights and Justice Program of International Renaissance Foundation.

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