Ensuring fairness for all in the justice system through free legal aid

April 22, 2021

UNDP and the Coordination Centre for Legal Aid Provision join forces to widen Ukrainians’ access to justice

Photo credit: Anastasia Vlasova / UNDP Ukraine

Originally published by Interfax-Ukraine News Agency on 22 April 2021

By Dafina Gercheva, Resident Representative, United Nations Development Programme in Ukraine and Oleksandr Baranov, a.i. Head of the Coordination Centre of Legal Aid Provision

"All are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to equal protection of the law."

So reads the first sentence of Article 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human rights, proclaimed by the United Nations General Assembly in Paris on 10 December 1948. In Ukraine and around the world, this fundamental principle should underpin   the sphere of justice,   good governance and vibrant democracy.

But while everyone should be equal in the eyes of the law, not everyone is always equally visible to the law. For this reason, UNDP and the Coordination Centre of Legal Aid Provision are working together to ensure that no one in Ukraine is left behind by the justice system and that everyone has equal access to legal recourse and  protection  that the law should provide to them.  This effort is in line with the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which recognizes “the need to build peaceful, just, and inclusive societies, which provide equal access to justice and are based on respect for human rights.” Goal 16, and its target 3 in particular (Promote the rule of law at the national and international levels and ensure equal access to justice for all), have a direct impact on progress across other goals, such as Goal 1 on Poverty, Goal 5 on Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, Goal 8 on Productive Employment and Decent Work, and Goal 10 on Reducing Inequalities.

One of the challenges we are addressing is that some marginalized groups, and those affected by discrimination, may not be aware of their rights. People living in remote areas may not have physical access to the justice system, and people on low income, even if they are fully aware of their rights, may lack the financial resources to defend themselves in court. Moreover, the armed conflict in the east of the country and the COVID-19 pandemic, have complicated the process of providing access to justice to some of the most vulnerable segments of society – the elderly, the displaced, the disabled and the poor.

Given this situation, the provision of free legal aid is vital to ensuring that everyone across the country has access to justice. For this reason, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Ukraine has established a long-lasting partnership with the Coordination Centre for Legal Aid Provision, an entity set up by the Ministry of Justice to provide free primary and secondary legal aid. Over nearly a decade, our cooperation has led to multiple impactful achievements, which benefit  the poorest and the most marginalized people in Ukraine.

UNDP, together with the Centre and other partners from the UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, are conducting on a regular basis a comprehensive research on the provision of legal services, and have developed several digital solutions that simplify access to legal consultations while optimizing the system’s operational procedures. One of these digital solutions is the mobile application “Your Rights” (Tvoie Pravo), which has so far helped more than 7,000 conflict-affected men and women in Ukraine, including from the non-government controlled areas, to learn about their rights, and to get help in defending them through the Coordination Centre for Legal Aid Provision. UNDP, under the UN Recovery and Peacebuilding Programme, developed and launched this application in 2018, and then upgraded it this year.

UNDP has worked with the Centre since it was first set up in 2012 as part of the Legal Empowerment for the Poor (LEP) Project. The initiative was then expanded through another UNDP project- Strengthening Capacities of the Office of the Ombudsperson, which is aiming at raising human rights awareness.   Last year, UNDP’s Democratic Governance portfolio established close cooperation with the Centre via the Human Rights for Ukraine project and the “Digital Solutions for Improved Access to Justice in Ukraine” initiative.

Over the years, the Centre has proven to be a reliable national partner for UNDP, providing access to justice to those Ukrainians who are unable – physically and/or financially – to legally defend themselves.

Forging an even closer partnership

Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic impacting all sectors and segments of society, we need to consolidate our efforts and work even more closely together to help the most vulnerable people and ensure that no one is left behind or unfairly treated by the justice system.

We at UNDP and the Coordination Centre for Legal Aid Provision are extremely proud and excited to sign a new Memorandum of Understanding to further strengthen our partnership and  bolster our efforts towards providing access to justice for all men and women in Ukraine. This new MOU will enable us to deliver legal aid to the poor and the marginalized in need of legal support, and to those who are unable to get assistance from a lawyer due to their financial conditions. Together we will boost the capacity of the free legal aid system in an effective and efficient manner and enable it to deal with the backlog of cases through the use of alternative dispute resolution method – in particular, mediation.

We firmly believe that  our partnership will trigger transformational change on the ground.   A recent UNDP human rights study has already shown positive tendencies: according to the research, Ukrainians have become more active in defending and claiming their rights. The number of respondents who have tried to defend their rights increased from 42 percent in 2016 to 60 percent in 2020. Access to legal aid is central to ensuring access to justice, especially for the poorest and most vulnerable people. As emphasized by the United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems, legal aid is an essential aspect of a fair, humane, and efficient criminal justice system based on the rule of law.  We believe the MOU signed between the  two organizations, is another important step in this process.