“Miss, but we need an attorney who is older, you’re young and you can not fight with them,” says a lady who is asking for legal help, one of many who came to our door.
In our organization,Lawyers Committee for Human Rights (YUCOM) , since it was established in 1997, we only have lawyers. The first lawyer, defender of human rights and also the YUCOM President Biljana Kovačević-Vučo was the originator of the idea that YUCOM should provide free legal aid.
And anyone who has become an activist in YUCOM, agreed to provide assistance to every person, whether it is the legal one or not.
On average, about ten people per day contact YUCOM looking for some kind of legal aid. They contact us by phone, e-mail, letters. Help is sought from all cities in Serbia, from prison, detention, and even from house arrest. Some calls are very urgent, sometimes just because violence or eviction is in progress. For some, the deadline for claims, complaints is approaching, and they don’t know what to do…
It is necessary to devote attention to everyone, to listen to them or read what they wrote about their problem. And then assess whether the case is for us, or isn’t…
The standard of professional approach in performing tasks was the basic condition to giving free legal aid.
Although we are all lawyers who come from the same school, we are not all specialized in all areas.
The area of human rights, which is a part of many non-governmental organizations, be it on general level, or any particular level (minority rights, etc.) is unknown to most of the lawyers. One of the reasons is certainly the fact that the Law School still hasn’t included Human Rights as the compulsory subject in its curriculum. Believe it or not, what we talk about and what we stand for is not mandatory at the Belgrade Law School.
Apart from that, let us add, dealing with human rights in Serbia is not profitable. All these are reasons why a small circle of lawyers deals with human rights, and they were drawn to this realm by their initial enthusiasm. As a rule, these are young people, because this is a “young issue”.
This is why YUCOM’s legal aid is so precious. The front of young people who “build” themselves up daily through training and practice is almost unique in Serbia. The strength of these people is the fact that they take their cases out of the courts – in public, pointing to systemic problems in the state, to the institutions that violate the human rights, and the regulations that allow this to happen, often under the veil of legality.
Assistance to victims of human rights violations is only one of the goals of YUCOM’s legal aid. The superior goal is to eliminate the possibility of further violations and to create an environment of respect and appreciation for the fundamental human rights of all citizens.
This goal is achieved through the so-called strategic representation, where YUCOM lawyers litigate cases to “the farthest instances” which are in charge of the respect of human rights—the Serbian Constitutional Court, the European Court of Human Rights, the United Nations treaty bodies. Victory before these bodies, as a rule, means a change in a regulation or a change of bad practices of institutions that enable future respect of the rights of citizens of Serbia.
What, in general,is free legal aid, who can get it and who provides it?
As a lawyer by profession, I cannot give you a precise answer—because the legal norms for which YUCOM has been advocating for years—do not exist in this area.
Today, free legal help is provided by the state in criminal cases when it is necessary to have the counsel ex officio, while in litigation it is rarely available to the citizens. Some municipal services provide free legal assistance in all cases. However, they do not provide free legal representation in the courts.
On the other hand, many non-governmental organizations provide legal assistance in clearly defined cases. The most vulnerable categories of citizens can contact the individual organizations, which are characterized by professionalism. The problem is that this system is selective and unsustainable, because the funding for those who do this work is provided on the basis of rare and time-limited projects.
The Law on Free Legal Aid is necessary to eliminate the existing shortcomings. It should provide for all citizens who meet certain criteria to become part of this system and receive free legal help. However, the draft laws that are being taken into consideration tend to leave the fate of non-governmental organizations, which have been providing assistance to citizens for 20 years,to the minister’s political will. The front of young people, who have heard so many cries from Serbia and transformed them into a triumphant cry, may enter through the keyhole of the door of this system and secure its existence—if you support us.
During the 15 years of YUCOM’s activity, its lawyers and lawyers from other organizations have listened to the problems of many, advised them, directed them, addressed many institutions, and represented them before the state authorities.
Today it’s time to measure how present we are and what is the quality of what we offer. Together, with the group called SeConS and supported by the ISC, we set out to do research. From door to door, the young researchers are knocking and asking citizens how successful we have been. On this will depend our argument that NGOs are an integral part of the good quality system of free legal aid in Serbia.
Think of a voice that advised you, and allow for the existence of cases that made the difference in this country – Bodrožić, Borka Pavićević, V.A.M., Velimir Ilić, Vasić, Women in Black, Zelić Ibraimović, Jenić, Kačar, Mikuljanac, Mališić, Nikolić, Šafar, Pavel Domonji, Petakov, Staša Zajević, Tijanić, Tirnanić, Torov, Todorović, Cvijanović, Vukotić, Vučićević….
Lawyer in Lawyers Committee for Human Rights