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A Little Money Can Bring a Lot of Justice to Russia's Poor

May 6, 2011

Access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable groups of the population in the Russian federation can be intimidating, expensive and hard.

World Bank Group

Two years ago Natalia Makusheva lost her passport and registration. A resident of the remote Russian city of Bereznyaki, Natalia was desperate. Without credentials or official documents she could not receive her pension or medical assistance of any kind. In the eyes of officialdom, she had become a homeless person, with no fixed address and few rights.

Special legal procedures are required to restore credentials and official documentation in a case like Natalia's. It is straightforward if you know where to apply and if you have enough money to travel to a regional center to wrestle your way through red tape. Those are two big 'ifs.' Natalia had neither enough money nor enough information. Unfortunately, her case is not unique.

Access to justice for the poorest and most vulnerable groups of the population in the Russian federation can be intimidating, expensive and hard. At times, it can seem impossible. A formal policy that helps to defend the poor's judicial rights and needs has yet not been clearly developed. Changes to the system are essential.

" In Russia the right to free legal aid is reinforced by the Constitution, but it is a well-known fact that the service is not as widely available as it ought to be, which made the government of Russia take immediate steps to address this challenge "

Olga Sidorovich

Director of the Institute of Law and Public Policy, which is implementing a World Bank project trying to bring wider access to justice for the poor in Russia.

Especially since more than 14 percent of citizens live below the poverty line, and since most Russians consider the judicial system complicated and bureaucratic.

To help those like Natalia Makusheva who have trouble accessing legal aid in small cities, the project "Strengthening Access to Justice for the Poor in the Russian Federation"1 was launched in 2009. The project aims to find the best international practice examples of delivering legal aid in civil matters and to adapt them to the Russian environment. The idea is to see what will work effectively in Russia.

The initial test run is to create free legal aid centers and locate them where demand is highest, primarily in remote rural districts of the country.

Natalia's small city of Bereznyaki was chosen along with ten others in the Perm district as part of a pilot program to bring judicial services closer to the poor. A regional public organization - Perm Regional Rights Defense Center - got a small grant to try out a model for delivering legal aid.

This model targets the delivery of primary legal aid—off-site consultations—because this service is demanded most often. It incorporates another principle: legal aid is delivered by lawyer-solicitors who have a law degree but are not admitted to the bar.

After struggling to obtain new documents alone, Natalia Makusheva applied to the Legal Aid Center in her hometown Julia Kasatkina, a lawyer-solicitor working in the center, helped her solve her problems. Within two months a new passport was issued for Natalia. Her registration was restored and Natalia started receiving her pension again. Her homeless status was annulled.

The other pilot program set up through the project with the help of regional public organization "Citizens' Watch" is in Leningrad oblast and follows a different model—whereby attorneys who are admitted to the bar give legal aid. Between the two programs, twenty cities opened legal aid centers. By December 2010, staff had provided 12,287 legal consultations and helped 9,780 people. Most of those helped were non-working pensioners, handicapped or low income citizens.

In addition to operating the legal centers, the project aimed to improve how Justices of the Peace treat low income plaintiffs, as most cases involving the poor and the vulnerable fall within their jurisdiction. Independent monitoring of 1,600 hearings was conducted as well as 267 interviews with plaintiffs, 455 interviews with defendants and 164 interviews with legal representatives. Based on the results, Justices of the Peace in pilot regions were trained to pay special attention to the target group population.

In Russia, it is not only the poor and aged who need better access to free legal aid. The young do too. Juvenile courts do not exist in Russia and there are few specific laws dealing with underage criminals.

What is more, juvenile offenders have very little information and access to legal aid. To improve the practice of juvenile justice, more than 160 Russian professionals - judges, court staff, social workers – got training in ways to help juveniles rehabilitate and get vocational training. It is hoped their efforts will help young people live a life without crime while bringing justice to a group that is little able to fend for itself.