Legal Aid Service in Georgia

A public attorney (right) talking to her client. Photo: David Khizanishvili / UNDP

Georgia’s Legal Aid Service was set by the government in 2007, and since then UNDP has backed national efforts to rapidly boost its quality and reach, especially among poor and marginalized communities. Today the service has achieved national coverage, so that all citizens, regardless of where they live or whether or not they can pay for legal council, have the right to access justice and seek protection under the laws of the land.

“I spent a year in jail falsely accused because I could not afford a lawyer,” says Kakha Kisishvili, a beneficiary of the project. “If it weren’t for free legal aid, I guess I would still be in jail, even though I did not commit the crime I had been accused of.”

More than 20,000 applications for legal advice and assistance streamed into Legal Aid Service offices in 2010. The service conducted almost 12,000 consultations, more than double the figure of 4,700 in 2008, its first full year of operations. It helped clients investigate, prepare and litigate over 10,000 court cases.

A 2010 survey found that three-quarters of respondents rated the service “very satisfactory,” while 71 percent said they achieved a favourable outcome in court. For many, the service was their best hope for justice.

Highlights

  • 11 Legal Aid Service offices and 3 consultation centres established nationwide.
  • Lawyers have gained public outreach skills, particularly for marginalized groups.
  • 12,000 legal consultations took place in 2010, along with 10,000 court cases.

Accountable courts

The Legal Aid Service is part of a sweeping package of judicial reforms that began in the wake of Georgia’s 2003 Rose Revolution. Until that point, the judicial system had been mired in long-festering popular mistrust. Many people saw the courts as corrupt and unaccountable, and as often as not rendering judgments based on biased interpretations of the law.

Today, reforms are putting an end to abuses and making the judicial system fairer and more readily accessible to all Georgians. A well-functioning judiciary is understood as a crucial support for overcoming the national legacy of conflict and post-Soviet transition, and developing democratic governance firmly rooted in principles of human rights.

The Government has consequently established the High School of Justice to train judicial professionals and a Speaker Judge to communicate information about the court system to the public. Parliament adopted the Law on Legal Aid in 2007, paving the way for establishing a state-financed Legal Aid Service. In 2010, a new Criminal Procedure Code introduced jury trials and an adversarial criminal law system based on a prosecution and a defense.

UNDP has been a longstanding supporter of many of these reforms, working closely with the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance and the court system. As requested by national partners, it has brought international experience into initiatives such as training judges and lawyers on human rights standards, assisting with the set-up of effective systems of public outreach, and backing the rapid rollout and expansion of the Legal Aid Service.

Equal under the law

The Legal Aid Service is a particularly important component of reform, because it holds the promise of universal access to justice, including for historically marginalized communities. People who are poor, located in remote areas, displaced by conflict and/or members of ethnic minorities have traditionally faced some of the steepest barriers to justice.

Operating under the Ministry of Corrections and Legal Assistance, the service has grown to 11 offices and 3 consultation centres situated to reach people in all parts of the country. The offices handle applications for legal consultations and court representation through staff lawyers. The centres serve a handful  of areas without ready access to an office. They provide basic advice and help in drafting legal documents, and can tap a new network of private on-call lawyers paid by the state to provide legal representation.

For the Legal Aid Service as a whole, UNDP has helped equip staff lawyers to work effectively with the changes in the judicial system. Familiarizing them with the elements of jury trials, for example, has included special sessions on the introduction of evidence and the examination of witnesses. In seminars in 2010, lawyers studied the protection of minors, the European Convention on Human Rights, forensic psychiatry and the protection of property rights, among other core issues.

More targeted UNDP assistance has gone to two offices and a centre in the Shida Kartli and Samtskhe-Javakheti regions, as a large number of displaced people reside in the former, and the latter holds a concentration of the Armenian ethnic minority. In both regions, UNDP has helped not only in training lawyers, but also in opening and furnishing the offices and centres, and facilitating the adoption of management plans to systematically guide ongoing activities.

The city of Gori in the Shida Kartli region, for example, is home to 30,000 people displaced by the 2008 war in South Ossetia. After the conflict came to a close, UNDP moved quickly to help establish a Legal Aid office there as a way to ease the aftereffects of the crisis. It soon became an essential resource as people struggled to reclaim stability in their lives by recovering lost legal documents, registering for state aid, or resolving property and other legal issues.

Today, the office has six public attorneys who from 2009 to 2010 provided 765 free consultations on all areas of civil and criminal law, as well as representation in 796 criminal cases.

Since traveling to Gori is not always easy for people in the poor villages and settlements for displaced people that surround it, the office organizes mobile legal teams to go to them, reaching even remote locations. The teams share information on the Legal Aid Service with residents and offer assistance with specific cases.

Communicating change

An important aspect of UNDP support to the Legal Aid Service entails transforming public attitudes to the judicial system. Well-run, universally accessible offices and public attorneys meeting high professional standards concretely demonstrate commitment to justice, building trust and confidence, especially for poor and vulnerable people.

Legal empowerment and knowledge are also essential so that people learn how to claim their rights—now and in the future. With legal literacy considered low in Georgia, UNDP’s training for Legal Aid Service lawyers has included a deliberate focus on public outreach skills and sensitivity to obstacles faced by marginalized groups.

To make as many people as possible aware of new avenues for justice, UNDP has also assisted Legal Aid Service staff with the wide distribution of information on legal rights and services, including through public roundtables, and radio and television broadcasts. In 2010, a TV clip with contact information for the service ran on a number of major channels, prompting an increase in the rate of applications for legal consultations, and a spike in website visits, from 6,000 in 2009 to 16,000 in 2010.

Irakli Kobidze, the head of the Legal Aid Service, reiterates that one objective is to help people out of trouble. Another is to increase legal education. “For years and years, people felt there was nobody to protect or advise them. And this caused ignorance about the laws and legal rights.” Kobidze promises, “We are going to change this.”