Access to justice for the vulnerable in Egypt

On the steps of the Family Court in the Heliopolis neighborhood of Egypt’s capital, Cairo, ‘Ayesha’, who preferred not to give her real name, tells a story that is all too common.

“My husband and I are divorced. I repudiated him. Then, he took my elder daughter, kidnapped her, and I did not know how to get her. And I did not find any one to ask. Each time I went to the court I came back with my problem unresolved.”

Highlights

  • 32 Legal Aid Offices established in seven governorates across Egypt
  • As of early 2015, 49,597 cases had been addressed, 36,948 of which were brought by women.
  • Organized 17 training sessions and workshops for more than 500 judges in family courts and employees in Legal Aid Offices and Dispute Settlement Offices.

Poor, often illiterate women and men seeking judicial review of their grievances can have great difficulty navigating the procedures and paperwork associated with bringing a case before one of Egypt’s 257 family courts. Their vulnerability in the face of an often complex and intricate legal system is a serious obstacle in their search for justice.

Since 2008, UNDP, in partnership with Egypt’s ministries of Justice and Foreign Affairs and Sweden’s International Development Agency, has been working to help people like Ayesha through the “Support to Legal Aid and Dispute Settlement in Family Courts” project. Designed to strengthen operational efficiency, transparency and integrity in family courts and family prosecution, the project has assisted in 49,597 cases, 36,948 of which were brought by women.

Omaima Abdel Khaleq, another plaintiff who is bringing a domestic violence case against her husband, explains how the project has helped her.

“When I came to file the case, a woman who filed one before told me she would take me to an assistance office. The office made me aware of many things I didn’t know. It made me aware of what exactly I should do instead of being lost among lawyers. It provided me with free services, everything was free.”

The Legal Aid Office (LAO) in Cairo that is supporting Omaima is just one of 32 established by the project in seven governorates across Egypt.

Electronically equipped and connected with the Judicial Information Centre and Ministry of Justice, they provide vital support and legal aid for plaintiffs filing their cases, offering free advice on simple legal matters before referring the clients to Family Courts. Legal aid officers guide litigants on Family Court procedures, revise and complete legal documentation, draft notes and petitions for those not fluent in reading and writing, and prepare electronic files.

The Legal Aid Offices are just one element of the project, which also includes training of staff, roundtables for family court judges, and assistance with digitizing and automating records in the family court system.

Dispute Settlement Offices (DSOs), which provide mediation before litigation, have received facility and equipment upgrades, as well as trainings for 200 employees on dispute settlement skills, personal status laws, child rights, and general provisions for alimony. 

Overall, the initiative is designed to empower poor and marginalized groups to access remedies for their grievances and overcome obstacles that prevent them from accessing justice. “We are helping people themselves - and women themselves - with their legal rights,” says Counselor Gihane El Batouty, project manager.

Back at the courthouse in Cairo, Ayesha is satisfied with how her case is going. “The Legal Assistant office told me what to do, arranged the steps to follow. Now I am following the procedures.”

Given the importance of qualified professionals for the success of the implementation, the project organized 17 training sessions and workshops for more than 500 judges in family courts and employees in LAOs and DSOs. Legal experts introduced best practices in terms of dealing with litigants.

A central electronic database of court decisions is being established by the Ministry of Justice, the Public Prosecution and the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology to improve networking between legal aid offices, family courts, and family prosecution. The database will also be electronically linked to Nasser bank to facilitate collection of payments awarded by the courts, which will expedite women’s access to alimony.

The Legal Aid Project in Egypt is just one of 55 similar initiatives UNDP supports in countries around the world.

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