Digital lawyers stepping up to the COVID-19 Challenge

June 19, 2020

Photo: UNDP Uzbekistan

Mubina Salibaeva is a second-year law student at the highly-respected Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL), who plans to be a lawyer for the purpose of improving people’s lives.

Putting theory into practice at the university’s free legal clinic, founded and operated with support from the ‘Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan’ project, that opportunity has come sooner than expected.

“While working during these past three months, we’ve learnt that providing digital services lets us reach far more people who need our help,” said Ms. Salibaeva. “People can ask for help from anywhere where there is internet, without having to physically come to us. At the same time my classmates and I can work from our own homes, share documents easily, work collaboratively on them, and automatically track revisions.”

“The most important thing is that we’ve been able to keep providing our services to vulnerable people, regardless of the social-distancing rules in place.”

At a time when the free legal clinic piloted at TSUL is being duplicated at regional economic, criminal and administrative courts throughout Uzbekistan, in order to provide free services to as many citizens as possible, COVID-19 has let Uzbekistan’s future lawyers start to make a difference.

Practicing under pressure 

Mubina Salibaeva and Mokhibonu Mukhammadjonova are two of fifteen young women who dedicate part of their academic year to working at free legal clinic at TSUL. 

Founded in early 2018 with necessary guidance, material and training support from UNDP, USAID and the Supreme Court of the Republic of Uzbekistan, clinic provides invaluable work experience to 50 students under the supervision of university professors. 

While it rounds out the education of young lawyers, more importantly it gives free legal advice and assistance to the public – the first pro bono legal service created in Uzbekistan. For many citizens it’s their only way of getting advice on legal cases without financial costs. By piloting this public service, Uzbekistan has improved its rankings in international indices for access to justice.

540 people sought assistance from the legal clinic in 2019, compared to 309 in 2018, while the number of citizens accessing help is expected to increase even more through 2020’s COVID-19 pandemic. Most cases dealt with by the clinic relate to civil law, with housing and family cases making up 48% of inquiries, but now similar free legal assistance is also being offered at economic, administrative and criminal courts.

During the pandemic, the TSUL students at the clinic found themselves not just building their legal abilities on the ground, but also learning to engage with clients exclusively through digital means. 

"We answered many interesting queries, but one I clearly remember was a request from a pensioner who had a 2nd degree disability, and needed to know how to access his ‘non puli’, or money for bread, while self-isolating," Ms. Salibaeva shared.

“It was the first time I heard about this type of matter, and also it was a challenging concern to deal with through only digital channels. I learned a lot in the process of responding to this query.”

Some cases could be resolved through a single conversation, but complex ones require students to study relevant laws in detail and submit a response under the guidance of professors. Sensitive cases test not just legal knowledge, but also soft skills like empathetic communication.

“Working at the clinic is good practice for consolidating knowledge gained, obtaining experience in working with citizens in different emotional states, and being able to explain to them what to do in any given situation,” Mokhibonu Mukhammadjonva shared. “Working here gives a lot of experience in a short time.”

A glimpse into the future of legal assistance

Having managed students at the TSUL legal clinic since its inception, Doctor of Law Guzal Akhmedova thinks of the COVID-19 pandemic as a defining moment when her students learnt the role lawyers should ideally play within their society. 

“What our clinicians have in common is a desire to be of service to people most in need, and also a familiarity with digital communications and engagement that my colleagues and I don’t come close to,” Ms. Akhmedova told us. “Those two qualities in equal measure are likely to be critical for every future lawyer.” 

In its first days the TSUL legal clinic trained its clinicians to meet the needs of citizens through face-to-face consultations. In the immediate lead-up to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, free digital legal services had also started to be offered.

The TSUL legal clinic’s Telegram channel was launched in November 2019, using Uzbekistan’s most popular messaging app to reach 4,000 subscribers. While essential during the lockdown, in the long-run it will make accessing free legal help much simpler.

“The telegram channel for our free legal clinic knocks down barriers of time and distance, both educating our students and assisting the public,” Ms. Akhmedova added. “It is the future.”

As with other government and legal services that switched to only digital engagement during the quarantine period, the TSUL free legal clinic and the additional pilot legal clinics will be compiling lessons learnt to inform operations going forward.