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.