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Low income Serbians set to benefit from free legal aid in 2018


Low income Serbians set to benefit from free legal aid in 2018

People gather to receive a piece of traditional Christmas bread, marking the Orthodox Christmas Day festivities. Belgrade, Serbia, 7 January. [Reuters]

Serbia has been struggling for six years to put in place a law on free legal aid, which is one of the requirements for progress in its EU accession negotiations. The law will be adopted by the end of 2016 and implemented in 2018, the justice ministry told EurActiv Serbia.

Due to the low salaries, high fees and lengthy court proceedings, many Serbs have difficulty affording justice.

The average salary in Serbia is around 45,000 Dinars or €365, while the data on the median salary is not published. It is widely believed that the median salary is far lower than the average one, the latter being boosted by the high salaries paid to company managements and in public companies and some lucrative sectors such as banking. Court and lawyer fees amount to hundreds of thousands of dinars which many cannot afford.

The draft law on free legal aid that is most likely to be adopted, seen by, envisages free legal aid for the recipients of social welfare and certain vulnerable groups such as victims of trafficking, torture and domestic violence, refugees as well as other individuals whose right to legal capacity is debated in the court proceedings.

It would not be possible to implement the law sooner, as administrative capacities have to be built and training for its application organized, the Justice Ministry told EurActiv.

“A campaign is also planned in the period ahead to inform citizens of the new law, requirements for free legal aid beneficiaries, and other important issues related to its implementation”, the ministry also said in a written response, without elaborating on the specific solutions.

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The human rights protection group Yucom points to a significant improvement in the bill as far as the potential beneficiaries of free legal aid are concerned. Yucom expert Milan Filipovic said that the circle of potential beneficiaries has been expanded, and that it now includes the people who would be so heavily burdened by the court proceedings fees that this would force them into the category of people in need.

“This is very important as requirements for social aid in our country are quite restrictive, amounting to a mere 7,000 Dinars a month (around €56). The new legislation could make the free legal aid accessible to people with a monthly income of between 20,000 and 30,000 Dinars (€160 to €240),” which is a normal salary in Serbia, Filipović said.

During a public debate on the previous versions of the bill Yucom spoke in favor of expanding the circle of beneficiaries. The provisions of the current draft are satisfactory, according to Filipović.

Unnecessary restrictions

Filipović also pointed out to a deficiency in the draft law: free legal aid is not envisioned for misdemeanor procedures unless a prison sentence may be the result.

For Yucom this raises a problem. The organization considers some misdemeanor procedures as cases of strategic importance for promoting the needed legal changes, citing the Law on Public Assembly as an example.

The Yucom expert also contested the provision regulating the issue of potential providers of free legal aid, because the law faculties, public notaries and organizations supporting the victims and witnesses will not have the right to draft written motions or conduct consultations on the court proceedings as part of free legal aid. They are limited to providing information not directly pertaining to court proceedings.

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According to Filipović, such restrictions are unnecessary. As he put it, a request for the enforcement of child support decisions is a good example – such requests are numerous and they could be easily prepared by law students under the supervision of their professors.

Wrong perceptions as a reason for delays

Asked why Serbia has been waiting so long for such a law, Filipović recalls that the right to free legal aid was envisaged by the Constitution in 2006, and the constitutional strategy in 2010 defined the Law on Free Legal Aid as a way to achieve this goal.

“We are now in 2016 and the question is why have we waited for so long? There were several drafts, and we can only guess on the reasons for the delay. As one of them we could mention the wrong perception of the lawyers that such a law is contrary to their interests”, he said, underlining that this is his personal view.

The beneficiaries of free legal aid are mostly the people who cannot afford high lawyers’ fees anyway, Filipović said.

In his view, the other possible reason for the delay is the potential financial burden for the state. He, however, dismissed this too, saying the information and advice provided through free legal aid can lead to a decrease in the number of legal proceedings.

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“Many people who decide to sue someone are not aware of the length of the proceedings and the expenses involved. At one point they no longer have the money and their cases are not solved. If they had received adequate counselling, which is what we do as part of our free legal aid offer, most probably they would have not initiated the procedure to start with, but would have tried to settle the case out of court,” Filipović said.

Neither Yucom expert nor the justice ministry were able to comment yet on the sum the state should set aside for free legal aid. What is known, however, is that the expenses will be covered by both the state budget and local municipalities.

The Action Plan for Chapter 23 (Judiciary and Fundamental Rights) in the EU accession negotiations envisages around €5.6 million annually for the first three years of implementation of the free legal aid law.