With support from the Government of Austria: Free Legal Aid serving those at risk of being left behind

Not every life story starts on a happy note, but many of them can have happy endings under the right consultation and help

A baby girl was given her mother’s surname at the Civil Registrar Office of the Diber municipality. Her mother, Fatime, was seriously ill — paralyzed and suffering memory loss so severe she was unable to take care of her child. Her father, Dritan, had left to Greece right after she was born, leaving the baby’s grandmother to take care of her until she passed away, two years after her birth. It was her uncle, Qazim, and his wife, who looked after the baby. Having heard about the Free Legal Aid Center in Diber, they turned for help asking to take full custody of the child.

During a counselling session in the Free Legal Aid Center in Fier

Lawyers of the centre assessed whether the girl enjoyed comfortable living conditions and warmth amid her uncle’s family and, after verifying and reviewing evidence, came to the conclusion that the girl’s uncle and his wife have sufficient resources to guarantee a safe and loving socioeconomic environment for the girl.

The couple was also offered additional employment by the municipality’s Employment Office to ensure the family has enough income to provide for the girl’s ongoing education.

In Lezhe municipality, the love affair of two Roma community members — Lule and Dorian — brought a baby into the world. The mother’s initial alcohol addiction turned into drug addiction after giving birth. She abandoned her daughter. The father, on the other hand, who had criminal records, was sentenced to four years in prison.

Abandoned by the parents, the baby’s grandmother, Sadije, became her legal custodian. However, her dire economic situation forced her to request the district court to pass the child’s custody to the Children’s Home. The court complied bearing the child’s best interests in mind.

During the three-month period they have been apart, Sadije has kept contact and attempted to find a stable job that will enable her to retake custody of her granddaughter. With the goal of ensuring an economically comfortable living environment for her granddaughter, Sadije was assisted by the Free Legal Aid Center in Lezha to initiate the court procedure to reunite with her granddaughter. The centre’s lawyers are currently assisting her after making sure she is the child’s most fitting care-taker.

These are only two out of 616 people who have been supported by UNDP to have unhindered and equal access to free legal aid services as a basic human right.

Birth registration is one of the top cases handled by the FLA Centers

The demand for justice in Albania has always been high. The findings of the Survey on Access to Justice in Albania, developed with UNDP support through the Catalytic Fund, showed that 48.7% out of the 1785 people surveyed had legal problems in the last five years. The survey found this to be particularly true for members of disadvantaged groups, including the poor, those with a low level of formal education, the Roma community, members of the LGBTI community, victims of domestic violence, etc. What’s more important, the study showed that those surveyed have a fairly low level of awareness of their rights: more than a quarter of those surveyed could not name a single constitutional right or freedom.

The demand for justice is high especially among members of disadvantaged groups

Against this context — since 2017 and ongoing — UNDP has supported the establishment of Free Legal Aid Centers (FLA) in six district court premises — Tirane, Durres, Fier, Lezhe, Peshkopi and Shkoder. Two of the FLA Centers established in Peshkopi and Shkoder under UNDP and UK Government funds are in full swing.

Three FLA Centers in Lezhe, Durres and Fier were revitalized at the end of 2019 under UNDP support, in partnership with the Ministry of Justice, District Courts and civil society organizations specialized in the provision of free legal aid services, with funding from Austrian Development Cooperation. The project “Expanding Free Legal Aid Services” (EFLAS) started implementation in 2019 and aims to improve vulnerable citizens’ access to justice by expanding free legal aid in several districts and build solid foundations for the new FLA system recently established in Albania.

The project targets marginalized groups such as women, the elderly, persons with disabilities, Roma/Egyptian community members, LGBTI persons, migrants and people living at or below the poverty line. It offers primary and secondary legal aid services in partnership with civil society organizations specialized in the provision of free legal aid.

UNDP has so far assisted 616 people to have unhindered and equal access to free legal aid services as a basic human right

During 2017–2018, three FLA Centres in Durres, Fier and Lezhe that were piloted and established with UNDP support in close partnerships with NGOs and District Courts provided primary and secondary FLA services to up to 1500 vulnerable individuals (F 685/ M 773) and during 2018–19, UNDP supported the expansion of the FLA centres in the District Courts of Shkoder and Peshkopi, reaching by the end 2019 around 951 vulnerable persons — 428 females and 523 males — through free primary and secondary legal aid services offered by the specialized civil society organizations and District Courts. These numbers clearly showed a high demand for this essential service by vulnerable women and men, thus UNDP’s decision to continue investing towards supporting FLA with the revitalization of the FLA Centers in Fier, Lezha and Durres District Courts. The top cases demanding legal aid have been divorce, protection orders, birth registrations, alimony benefits, pension benefits, labour disputes, immigration criminal law, social benefits, inheritance cases and property disputes from which a considerable number of women and girls have benefited.

88 victims of domestic violence and other gender-based abuses benefited from free legal aid.

In the first four months of 2020 alone, 616 vulnerable people benefited from free legal aid services in the five centres. Cases handled include divorce, marriage settlement, registration in the civil registry, pension benefits, employment, migration, property disputes, domestic violence and custody.

A Roma family that benefited free legal aid in the municipality of Diber

Considering justice an “essential service,” during the lock-down caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, UNDP supported technically the five FLA centers in providing uninterrupted legal aid services to vulnerable communities deploying digital tools, telecommunication and social media to ensure a basic human right such as legal aid and access to justice.

15 victims of domestic violence have been provided with free legal aid. Although the courts have not been operational, the FLA centres continued to provide free legal aid services so that legal counselling was not interrupted.

If the pandemic has made one thing obvious, it is that respect towards vulnerable communities’ human rights and the need to provide them access to justice should not be undermined even in times of crisis, but instead further placed under the spotlight.