NCEI WG I, Session 1: Free Legal Aid in Albania – the role and contribution of non-state actors

On November 16, 2020, the European Movement in Albania (EMA), and the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) of Albania  in partnership with the Slovak Foreign Policy Association, with the financial support of SlovakAid, organized Session 1 of Working Group I on “Free Legal Aid in Albania – the role and contribution of non-state actors ”. Working Group I, thanks to the experience of experts, is examining topics in the field of judiciary, justice and human rights, while foreseeing a further process of reform and EU accession. Within Chapter 23, anti-corruption, juvenile justice, free legal services and legal information, reforms in the justice system, etc. have been mainly discussed, which will further reflect on the choice of other possible topics.

Mr. Gledis Gjipali, the Executive Director of EMA, opened Session 1 for Working Group I of the Convention. By greeting all the participants, he then proceeded to explain the role of the Convention, which is an initiative launched by the Slovak partners, where it was initially implemented and then spread to countries such as Serbia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Albania. The Convention aims to create a bridge of cooperation between state institutions, civil society and professionals of different interest groups who want to be involved in the European integration process. Albania is on the verge of the practical start of the negotiations after their official opening in March 2020. This means that more commitment is needed in terms of state administration, as the main institution in this process and by all stakeholders. In relation to the implementation of the Convention, 4 Working Groups have been established, one of which is WG 1, which focuses on the judiciary and fundamental rights, which are mainly topics of Chapter 23 of the European Union legislation. In terms of these areas, the issue of free legal aid and the various developments that the country has had, was selected as the first topic of this working group.

Mrs. Adea Pirdeni, Deputy Minister of Justice was one of the supporters of this initiative which thanked, among others, the international partners and representatives of the academic world. The Ministry of Justice is the leading institution for Chapter 23 within the negotiation process with the EU. In the framework of justice reform, the law on legal aid guaranteed by the state has been adopted, which brings changes not only from the legislative point of view, but also from the organizational one. As a tool that guarantees citizens’ access to the justice system, to be effective, it requires the cooperation of state and non-state actors. In this regard, the Ministry of Justice not only as the responsible institution for guaranteeing the implementation of this law, but also as the institution which also has the responsibility of defining and drafting policies and strategies for free legal aid, has established a  structure for this matter. This structure is the Directorate of Free Legal Aid created in 2019, which although it is a new institution, has shown effectiveness in its work, proven by the figures and active work that this institution has shown during the activity. It should be mentioned that in such a short time 7 free legal aid centers have been set up which have been established with the help of OSFA and UNDP. This service is being supported by 12 organizations and 8 legal clinics in higher education institutions that operate to provide the free legal aid support. , Deputy- Minister Pirdeni mentioned these innovations regarding the law on free legal aid: expanding the circle of beneficiary entities; defining the networking of responsible institutions and structures such as the Ministry of Justice, the Directorate of Free Legal Aid; involvement of civil society organizations and law clinics in the Faculty of Law. What is important according to the Deputy Minister is the fact that the law introduces a new dimension of free legal aid by the courts, which will decide whether or not to grant legal aid to citizens who need legal assistance during the process, which is offered to them by lawyers.

In this context, the Ministry of Justice, stressed Ms. Pirdeni, is committed not only to the establishment of the directorate of free legal aid, but also to supplement the legal framework with relevant bylaws, namely 13 such. These acts will be adopted after an extensive consultation process with all the stakeholders involved, both with civil society organizations and especially with the attorney community, where we refer to the guidance on their rotation and related fees. The mission of free legal aid is of a humanitarian nature, which guarantees that every citizen has the necessary information and assistance to face the institutions, she concluded.

Mrs. Patricia Pogaçe from the Free Legal Aid Directorate provided a brief presentation on the situation, the role of the Ministry of Justice, and other figures or data related to the legal aid. Regarding the primary legal aid service which consists of legal advice or representation in administrative proceedings, the Directorate of Free Legal Aid administers 7 primary legal aid centers in Tirana, Durres, Fier, Lezha, Lushnje, Pogradec and Gjirokastra where it is located the newest center. In these offices there are lawyers who welcome and host  citizens who want legal advice within the official hours. Also, 8 cooperation agreements have been concluded with law clinics in universities. These clinics have been a challenge for the directorate due to the pandemic as the lectures took place online. Regarding the cooperation for the first time of public institutions and the civil society organizations in the field of legal aid provided by the state, in September 2020 it was possible to authorize 12 non-profit organizations, which have provided assistance in terms of primary legal aid.  From the state legal aid centers, in the  January-October 2020 period, a total of 1100 cases of primary legal aid were treated, while in the authorized NGOs were treated over 500 cases. It was emphasized by Ms. Pogaçe, that the platform “Juristi Online” has a special importance through which every citizen can electronically benefit from free legal advice during the day. For citizens who do not have access to the Internet, the directorate in cooperation with OSFA provides a free green number where citizens can seek legal advice. Specifically, in the  January-October 2020 period, a total of 3000 cases were handled by all providers together. Regarding the secondary legal aid service, during this year contracts were signed with 73 lawyers and 120 citizens have benefited from this assistance. She also stressed that one of the newest reforms is the exemption from court fees. Citizens who receive free legal aid now have the right to request exemption from paying these fees. These fees are now already paid by the Directorate for Free Legal Aid. Based on statistical data, Ms. Pogaçe brought to attention a progressive increase in cases which she argued are a result of the increase in quality of the service. Despite the situation created by the pandemic, the directorate has tried to conduct trainings in the framework of capacity building.  The Directorate of Free Legal Aid is engaged in a number of strategies in the framework of EU membership, where of importance is the strategy for legal aid guaranteed by the state which is a strategic plan as it has not yet taken its final form. The Directorate of Free Legal Aid is assisting this strategy which is being implemented by the Ministry of Justice and EURALIUS. Mrs. Pogaçe explained that this 5-year strategy will define the objectives and concrete measures to be taken by this institution in the framework of further development in the future, where one of the objectives of the directorate is to promote service and familiarize citizens with this system.

Mrs. Eva Kovacechova, lawyer and former director of the Legal Aid Center in Slovakia, as the Slovak expert of the Convention, reflected on the main challenges of legal aid in Slovakia as well as success cases. She began her presentation by first explaining the Slovak Constitution, where one of the rights guaranteed as the right to a fair trial includes the right to legal aid. Slovakia has also set up a legal aid institution known as the “Legal Aid Center”, established in 2005. It has 160 employees including lawyers, primary legal aid staff and assistants. The mission of this center is to provide legal aid in certain areas to people who do not have access to the legal aid. Assistance is available for all areas starting from the civil one, commercial, administrative, asylum cases, expulsion and representation in the Constitutional Court. To benefit from this assistance, the expert explained that some conditions must be met related to the client’s income, which should not exceed the minimum wage, which in 2020 is 301 Euros. While the value of the litigation costs of the dispute must exceed the minimum wage. The center also provides primary assistance through preliminary consultations, preliminary legal consultation, explanation of the procedure and conditions for obtaining assistance from the center and assistance in preparing the application. Regarding the procedure of providing assistance, it starts with the application of the stakeholder, the decision for approval comes within 30 days from the submission of the request, then the lawyers and attorneys of the center start the legal procedures, if necessary the presence of translators or interpreters is also possible. Regarding some issues related to the center, she said that there are some challenges that need to be addressed such as: Staff turnover (fluctuation); high bureaucracy in procedure, this comes as the decision-making procedure itself is an administrative procedure and as such clients are required to submit various documents or certificates from other institutions. Another problem she added was the reluctance of lawyers to take over cases as this leads to very low fees of their legal requirements and on the other hand the existence of income criteria for applicants. In 2017, the center enabled the provision of legal aid to victims of crime, especially vulnerable categories under the law, which are: minors, the elderly, people with disabilities, victims of trafficking and torture. Assistance includes: legal aid, compensation of damage, the right to information when there are criminal trials or contacts of various non-profit organizations, accredited by the Ministry of Justice, which provide assistance in these matters and contact with a psychologist. This assistance is provided by the legal aid center only according to the rules of civil procedure, as the center does not accept criminal procedure issues. However, in these cases, the defendant has the right to seek free legal aid, if he does not have sufficient financial resources to cover court fees. This is decided by the prosecutor or the court. Legal aid in criminal proceedings for the defendants is provided only by lawyers who are randomly assigned from the ranks of specialists in the respective district courts. Unlike victims of crime, to whom this assistance is provided by the state, the Ministry of Justice, the Center for Free Legal Aid, but outside the Criminal Court and by lawyers. In addition to the center there are other ways to get free legal aid. There is a possibility to seek free legal aid  by also contacting the Constitutional Court directly, without first contacting the center. The Slovak Bar Association also provides this assistance. This association organizes 1-2 times a year the “open door” day, which means that these lawyers provide free legal aid in some cities to people who need legal advice. Legal aid is also provided by non-profit organizations through the “pro bono” program, depending on the field they cover, law clinics at Law Universities and lawyers themselves as free assistance is part of their profession.

Mrs. Evis Fico, Advisor to the Minister at the Ministry of Justice, after thanking the EMA for the return of the National Convention on European Integration in Albania, led the moderation of the question and discussion session which focused on providing legal aid “pro bono” by lawyers and NGOs in defence of victims of crime and focusing especially  in  providing assistance to these categories by focusing not only on providing primary assistance, but by extending it to other services. At the end Ms. Fico organized the summary of conclusions and recommendations. In the recommendations of 2016 within the National Convention, there was a discussion around  an amended law on legal aid which was problematic. We are already talking about a new and regulated system which guarantees an effective legal aid law of 2017 and with completed bylaws. The establishment of the Legal Aid Directorate, as an institution of the Ministry of Justice, ensures access to justice for all citizens regardless of financial means, especially from vulnerable categories such as victims of trafficking and minors. Regarding the budget of the directorate, in 2016, there was a lack of it in the amount of 27 million ALL and other funds needed for the successful implementation of legal aid in Albania. Mrs. Fico says that there is a significant increase, predicting in 2021 tripling of the budget by 82 million ALL. Regarding the legal aid instruments, there are many such where for the first time in cooperation with the foundation OSFA, legal aid is provided online, through a platform dedicated to free legal services. Another instrument is the green number, where about 1021 cases of legal aid have been handled not only from marginalized groups, but also from other citizens who have called the online lawyer, without distinction and without a fee. One of the innovations in 2020 according to Mrs. Fico, is the adoption of guidelines on the rules for the implementation of fees and the principle of rotation of lawyers, who will provide secondary legal aid services. If previously we were talking about organizations that operated directly in the field of providing legal aid through projects, now it is the Ministry of Justice, where with the authorization it has given to 12 civil society organizations and based on the provisions of the law on free legal aid 2017, coordinates the activity by defining clear rules by establishing a coordinator who coordinates the work with the Directorate of Free Legal Aid together with the agencies and compiles periodic reports of these services. In 2016 there were no center models like these. Since the establishment of these centers, Mrs. Fico states that over 5000 citizens have received services and 120 requests for secondary legal aid have been handled, where specifically: 94 are requests for civil cases. Also, 120 court decisions were issued at a cost of 2 million ALL with a list of 73 lawyers. The Legal Aid Service Oversight Directorate monitors communications and collaborations with all attorneys and primary and secondary legal aid providers.

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