In the context of ongoing reforms that are currently implemented in Ukraine, access to legal aid and legal support for the activities of institutions, including of local self-government bodies, is becoming increasingly relevant.
Providing qualified legal aid in rural areas where there is a shortage of trained specialists and financial resources is a particularly critical issue. For example, a local council should allocate some UAH 60,000 (USD 1 = UAH 26) per year to employ a lawyer – even if the minimal wage is paid – not to mention the difficulty of finding such a potential employee.
At the same time, the Law of Ukraine “On Free Legal Aid” binds local self-government bodies to provide legal aid to the residents. Some possible ways to deliver on this obligation are to set up a specialized community provider or to engage a lawyer/attorney or legal entity (including civil society organizations) on a competitive basis.
A model for providing free legal aid in Dvorichna district of Kharkiv oblast which is implemented by Dvorichna office of the Legal Development Network is a good example of viable solution. The office carries out its activities through the NGO “Fund of Rural Communities of Dvorichna”.
Dvorichna district is an administrative-territorial unit in the northeastern part of Kharkiv oblast of Ukraine. It was established in 1923. The population is 18,456 people. There are one settlement council and 13 village councils in the district. Total number of settlements is 55. The distance from the regional center of Kharkiv is 150 km. (according to https://uk.wikipedia.org).
After the Law of Ukraine “On Free Legal Aid” entered into force, in 2012-2013 the team of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network launched an advocacy campaign to find a solution that would provide residents with access to free legal aid.
This solution was necessary because of the following:
the remoteness of villages from the district center and the lack of regular public transportation between them;
low income of overwhelming majority of the residents in the district which deprived them of access to paid legal services;
lack of legal information and materials in rural libraries;
limited access of local residents to the Internet;
lack of lawyers in rural areas.
The access of people living in remote areas to social and legal aid is significantly limited. Unlike city residents, rural people have access to much less providers where they can get legal information or advice. It often leads to violation of their rights and prevents them from enjoying and protecting their rights.
Free legal aid is a safeguard for access to justice and building legal capacity of vulnerable groups. Timely and effective aid can prevent a litigation or a conflict. The advocacy campaign widely used these arguments to support the idea of establishing a regular system of free legal aid.
During the campaign, a series of meetings with district leaders, members of local councils, experts and the public was organized. In particular, the topic of providing free legal aid to the residents of the district was discussed at the round table and political and legal commission of Dvorichna district council of Kharkiv oblast.
Based on the findings of discussions, it was decided to opt out for engaging a lawyer to providing free legal aid to local residents within the framework of the respective district program. Then, the representatives of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network jointly with officials of local self-government bodies developed a draft district program “Provision of Legal Aid to the Residents of Dvorichna District for 2014-2018”. The draft program was reviewed and submitted to the session of the district council.
On December 20, 2013, the program was approved by the decision of Dvorichna district council of Kharkiv oblast. A professional lawyer was selected on a competitive basis to provide free legal aid to the residents.
At the very beginning of the program, free legal aid was provided once a week in the municipality of Dvorichna. It was clear that the system should be further developed and expanded to remote settlements.
Thanks to the cooperation with international development organizations, in particular with the International Renaissance Foundation, the Office incrementally started expanding to the village councils of Dvorichna district. In particular, the Office provided a series of trainings for 20 employees of local self-government bodies and 40 employees of cultural institutions. These people became assistants in legal and other relevant issues. In addition, four legal units were set up in the village councils. Representatives of these units received basic legal training at the School of Law and have become legal grass-roots advisers. In fact, a network of paralegals was established in the district.
In addition to providing legal advice to people, a number of extra measures were taken through the program such as expert support to the activities of local self-government bodies, associations of citizens and other civic initiatives. Such interaction helped involve all 13 village councils and one settlement councils of the district to program activities, including to funding them.
Implementation of the program activities yielded the following results:
Residents of the district got permanent access to qualified free legal aid;
Lawyers and experts of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network constantly take part in the Network activities to improve their knowledge and study experience of addressing legal problems in other regions of Ukraine;
The number of appeals to local self-government bodies has decreased threefold (in 2015, 2016 and 2017, Dvorichna settlement council received 154, 45 and 45 appeals respectively, the rural councils – 316, 252 and 191 appeals respectively), which in turn reduced the burden on the officials of local self-government bodies;
In addition, local authorities and the community as a whole got access to expert legal support (involvement and legal support of reforms, advocacy campaigns, implementation of restorative practices (mediation), training and support to paralegals, assistance in preparing project proposals for donor funding, analysis of legal acts, letters, requests, drafting of responses to requests of controlling bodies, etc.).
Halyna Turbaba, Head of Dvorichna district council, highlights: “We believe that this reduction in appeals to local councils is due to the work of Legal Development Network Office and the implementation of program activities. This work helps find solutions to the issues and appeals and contributes to improved legal awareness of our residents”.
Success Stories and Positive Impact on the Community (2017)
“The community saved UAH 20,000”
Kolodiazne village council violated the terms of the lease agreement as it did not pay for the pothole filling on rural roads in time. The money should have come from the state budget as a grant. As a result, the contractor applied to the court and it requested to make the village council pay for the works and impose penalties. The specialists of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network conducted successful talks and managed to persuade the contractor to revoke its claim for UAH 20,000 fine.
“600 sq.m. of community premises rented out to generate income to the district budget”
The premises of former Central District Pharmacy were transferred to the community of Dvorichna district from the regional level. For more than a year, the council was not able to register ownership because of the alleged “arrest”. At the request of the council head, the experts of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network gathered necessary evidence and proved that the arrest was imposed on another room that belong to a different legal entity and was never put onto the community books.
“A 10 hectares-big land plot is working for the community”
The lawyers of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network provided assistance to Lyman village council to establish that two land plots in the village are escheat property and put them onto the village community books. As a result, these land plots were rented out through the auction, and the revenue to the local budget has tripled.
The program “Provision of Legal Aid to the Residents of Dvorichna District for 2014-2018” is funded from the district budget. Program expenditures include:
payment for legal advice;
2014 – UAH 30,000
2015 – UAH 50,000
2016 – UAH 80,000
2017 – UAH 150,000.
Since 2016, all 13 village councils and a settlement council started contributing to the program financially. Such financial contribution is possible is village budgets collected extra money or if leftovers are available. The money is transferred to district budget from village and settlement budgets and is “targeted”. It means that the members of a district council cannot decide on allocating this money on any purpose other than the one specified by a village council or a settlement council that provided this money.
In addition, positive performance of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network helps raise funds from international donors (about UAH 300,000 annually) for developing the free legal aid system in the district.
Plans for Future
The program for the provision of free legal aid in Dvorichna district expires this year. Accordingly, experts from Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network are planning an advocacy campaign for the adoption of the subsequent program for the period of 2019-2024. Also, experts are analyzing previous experience and developing suggestions for further improvement of the free legal aid system in Dvorichna district.
Vitalii Babyka Head of Dvorichna Office of the Legal Development Network
Yevgen Poltenko Executive Director of the Legal Development Network