Access to Justice – Access to Free Legal Aid
In democratic societies, the possibility of effective legal protection of violated or endangered rights is a basic condition for the maintenance of Rule of Law. One of the instruments for exercising the right to access to justice and respecting the standards for a fair trial is the right to legal assistance. According to Article 67 of the Constitution of the Republic of Serbia (hereinafter: the Constitution), the right to legal assistance under the conditions specified by law is guaranteed to everyone. Also, the Constitution provides that only lawyers (members of the Bar Association) and services in local self-government units can provide free legal aid. However, this article has different interpretations and does not imply that it is forbidden for other service providers to provide free legal aid. In practice, free legal aid is also provided by various associations that have shown exceptional efficiency, especially in helping those marginalized groups whose human rights have been endangered since the ’90s. A fair trial implies that persons have equal access to justice, courts and state organs, without discrimination, in order to protect and exercise their rights. This implies the obligation of the state to ensure that legal assistance will be provided to a person who cannot afford it or when providing legal assistance is based on the reasons of justice.
Serbia hasn’t yet adopted the Law on Free Legal Aid, although it has been foreseen in the „Action plan for Chapter 23“ for the third quartal of the year 2015. The European Commission has approved a new draft of Law on Free Legal Aid prepared by the Working Group and which gives the right to free legal aid to those users who were not entitled to it by any law. The purpose of this law is to ensure and provide access to justice for everyone. The law is still in the drafting stage, and according to current plans, its adoption should be completed in 2018.
Since the system of providing free legal aid is in a chaotic situation due to the lack of adequate laws in this area, the identification of all legal aid providers in Serbia was an important idea that the MDTF JSS, in cooperation with the Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights – YUCOM, successfully implemented. The main idea of targeting all legal aid providers is to give citizens the access to information about legal assistance services that they can receive free of charge in a systematic manner, to facilitate access to justice. All of these requests have been realized through the web platform of the map of free legal aid providers. The interactive map is easy to handle, it contains relevant information about services and shows geographical coordinates of the legal assistance service. Interactive map provides standard information about who is the legal aid provider, address, phone, email, contact person, working hours and website. In addition to standard information, associations that are providing free legal aid have also specific information that arises from their area of expertise. These are: forms of legal assistance (information, legal advice and active assistance), user categories (unemployed, women, children, LGBT, Roma people) and the area of law (Criminal, Labour, Family). This specificity arises from the fact that associations are most often specialized in certain categories of users or specific areas of law in which they have developed their activity over the years.
The interactive platform is easy to operate and it is adapted to people with the basic knowledge of working on Internet. The YUCOM website has created a online banner called “Free Legal Aid Providers in Serbia”, which directs the user to the directory of free legal aid providers over only one click. The search option in the platform provides the ability to search for providers in an easy way, enabling citizens to search based on their location, address, name or type of service that is provided. The search option identifies any word entered into the platform by narrowing the selection according to the need of the map user. Interactive map of Free Legal Aid Providers in Serbia contains data on 76 providers within the services of local self-government units. In addition to local governments, the maps contain the contacts of 21 local Ombudsman offices in Serbia, which also provide legal assistance services. The map also contains information about 24 Civil Society Organizations that provide general or specialized legal assistance to certain categories of people. The map is interactive because it has the possibility of constantly updating and delivering feedback from citizens and free legal aid providers. An email address is available to all providers and users through which they are able to submit new data so that the content of the providers’ information is complete and accurate.