Friday, 7 February 2014

Lack of Understanding for Key Shortcomings of the Draft Law on Free Legal Aid

Taken from the website of Autonomous Women’s Centre
The roundtable entitled What kind of law on free legal aid do we need?," organised by the Autonomous Women's Centre, in cooperation with Praxis and the coalition of civil society organisations, which believe that the current draft law is not good, was a forum for discussion on the key shortcomings of the proposed draft.

The representatives of organisations and institutions highlighted some serious problems in relation to the fundamental issues of the draft law:

  • in defining the circle of beneficiaries, which is both under-inclusive and too broadly defined, which puts citizens in an unequal position in relation to the place of living and leaves enormous discretion in deciding who is entitled to secondary legal aid;

  • in the fact that primary legal aid is not guaranteed by the state, because it is not financed from the state budget, although it should be a basic human right and the foundation of a democratic society;

  • in a complicated procedure for exercising the right to secondary legal aid, which makes it difficult for specific groups of citizens to access the public administration body that decides on the request, and in some cases a preliminary legal procedure needs to be initiated in order to exercise the right to free legal representation;

  • in selecting the social welfare centre as administration body that decides on the request for obtaining free legal aid, which neither has resources nor sufficient knowledge in the fields beyond social protection, and in some cases it may be in direct conflict of interest;

  • in understanding the problems of financing free legal aid, which compromises the provision of primary legal aid, as basic right of every citizen, irrespective of the issue of poverty;

  • in not recognising the specialization of providers in certain legal areas and failure to recognise the obligation of the state to guarantee free legal aid to those groups of citizens that are recognised as free legal aid beneficiaries by international treaties accepted by the Republic of Serbia, including victims of violence, or by the Council of Europe Convention on Preventing and Combating Violence against Women and Domestic Violence, which was ratified by the Republic of Serbia on 31 October 2013.

Although the representatives of the Ministry of Justice and Public Administration and the Ministry of Labour, Employment and Social Affairs tried to give answers to the presented criticism, it seems that there was not enough understanding of the fundamental problems opened by the draft law.

At the end of the roundtable it was concluded that we were not closer to a better solution, but that civil society organisations should continue exerting pressure on decision makers to avoid non-substantial changes. The key issues of the Law on Free Legal Aid in this draft should be placed on better foundations, so that the Law reflects and corresponds to reality, that it is rational, functional and viable, but also fair and just. All the interested public and international organisations should be mobilised in this effort.

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