Access to justice is a fundamental right. Lack of knowledge about rights and low income can prevent individuals, especially from vulnerable backgrounds, from seeking legal advice.
“Access to free legal advice in Bulgaria has increased in importance over the last few years following the economic crisis. Many people have very low income and have no possibility to search and pay for services from a lawyer,” explains Elena Cherneva, president of the Bulgarian National Legal Aid Bureau (NLAB), a state body responsible for providing legal aid.
Expansion of legal aid services
Through a project funded by Norway, the Bureau has introduced two entirely new services providing legal consultation free of charge - services that were not earlier available in Bulgaria.
A telephone hotline providing legal advice to callers from all over the country is established as well as two regional aid centres in Vidin and Sliven – areas in Bulgaria with a high Roma population. As a result, around 10 000 people have so far received free legal assistance, either by attending appointments or phone consultations. Both the centres and the hotline are operated by trained lawyers.
“Earlier people in need of legal assistance had to send a written application to us that had to be considered before advice could be provided. Now people call from all over the country and receive instant help from our lawyers. This has made it easier to ensure that people, especially from vulnerable backgrounds, have their rights protected,” said Cherneva.
She explains that earlier it was a challenge to reach out to people in remote places who often did not have the means or knowledge to travel and seek legal advice. Many people seeking help – such as victims of domestic violence and disabled people – also prefer the possibility of being anonymous that the hotline provides for.
The regional legal aid centres are centrally located in Roma districts ensuring easy access. In Slivin, laywers are also providing legal aid to prisoners on the premises of the women’s prison in the city.
Helping those in need
Natasha Gergova is one of the more than 40 lawyers who are working for the national telephone hotline. She explains that most of the people who call have serious problems combined with a difficult financial situation.
Examples of questions they enquire about are problems related to divorce, parental rights, family rights, employment rights, how to receive social support and rights vis-à-vis water, electricity and mobile companies when they have not been able to pay their bills.
While we visit the hotline’s premises in the capital Sofia, a woman who has been a victim of domestic violence and wants a divorce is calling for legal advice.
“I am very happy to be able to help people who would otherwise not be able to have any legal help,” said Gergova.
The services will continue beyond the project
The pilot project funded through Norway Grants was completed in November 2015. However, the good results from the project contributed to an administrative change making sure that the two services will continue by receiving funding over the annual state budget.
“In addition, this autumn we plan to establish 15-17 new regional aid centres across Bulgaria based on the model of the two pilot centres in Sliven and Vidin. This would not have happened without the project funded by Norway,” said Cherneva.
Improving the efficiency of the justice system
This is one of five projects supported under the ‘Judicial capacity building’ programme in Bulgaria. All the projects are implemented in cooperation with the Council of Europe. The objective of the programme is to improve the human rights situation in Bulgaria by creating a fairer and more efficient judicial system.
As a result of the expansion of the legal aid services, the number of applications for legal assistance in court by the National Legal Aid Bureau has been reduced by almost 20 per cent.
“Due to the information citizens receive through our new services, their knowledge and understanding of their rights have increased. This has led to a reduction of unfounded cases brought to court which again contributes to make the legal system more efficient,” concludes Cherneva.