Access to justice project in Bulgaria, funded by Norway, could become an example for other countries

27-06-2022 15:05

The Legal Aid Act should be supplemented so that everyone who has suffered domestic violence, regardless of their social status, receives free legal aid. This is one of the proposals that will be made after the end of the project “Improving access to justice for persons living below the poverty line with a special focus on women, children and the Roma community, implemented by the National Legal Aid Bureau and funded by the Norwegian Financial Mechanism.

The project is one of the nine in the country that are currently being implemented with Norwegian assistance under the Justice Programme of the Ministry of Justice.

This proposal was made by citizens from Stara Zagora, who use the service, which is currently provided under the project in the districts of Veliko Tarnovo and Varna. They shared their views with representatives of the Council of Europe, the headquarters of the Norwegian Financial Mechanism, the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and the Norwegian Embassy, who checked on the spot how the project is being implemented. In Stara Zagora, the guests attended legal consultations in the Roma neighbourhood of Lozenets. The service is provided free of charge by mobile lawyers registered in the legal aid register and a Roma mediator.

The foreigners heard personally from service users how their cases related to domestic violence and parental rights were solved.

The guests were adamant that the project was unique, very useful and could be applied in other European countries. They were on a two-day visit to Bulgaria as representatives of the Cooperation Committee under the Justice Programme of the Norwegian Financial Mechanism 2014-2021.

The stories of the people receiving legal aid under the project are heartbreaking and truly moved the representatives of Norway who heard them personally from the victims.

One of them is a woman from Stara Zagora who is the aunt of three children. She wants to adopt her brother’s children and take care of them because he is a drug addict and their mother has abandoned them. All three children are minors, and the youngest girl will be enrolled in kindergarten for the first time. Their aunt can take care of them as she has already raised her own children. The good thing about this case is that the lawyers handling it have managed to get written consent from the parents, which will serve in court. Social institutions in the city have also been informed.

Cases such as this one reach the lawyers thanks to the work of the Roma mediator Gancho Iliev, who has held an administrative position in the neighborhood for years. “Trust is what connects me to people. It is very difficult to build, but it can also be lost very quickly. I myself do not hide my Roma origin and I can talk freely with people both in Turkish and in Gypsy. This was very important in this case, for example, because the aunt in question did not speak Bulgarian. In the beginning, she was very worried because she thought that you were coming to take her nephews,” Iliev told the guests. He agrees with another idea - Roma children of school age are given basic legal knowledge so they know who to turn to for help when needed.

This was not known to another young woman from the Roma neighborhood in Stara Zagora before she turned for help to the project specialists. Last year, her husband died of Covid-19 and she was suddenly left a widow with two children, one of whom was only a year old. The experts not only explained her rights under the law, but also helped her contact the relevant institutions to actually benefit from these rights.

Another woman complained about her 35-year-old son, who is a drug addict and constantly harasses her and his grandmother. She has been a widow for 3 years and fears for her life. “He has four children but his wife left him as he is insufferable. He is currently in the hospital in Radnevo for treatment, but I am afraid he will run away from there, as he has already done, and return home where the harassment will continue. My son has an order from the court not to hang us, but that doesn’t stop him,” the woman told Europe representatives.

Her case suggests another idea for Bulgarian legislation. It turns out that the son, as his father’s heir, cannot by law be forbidden to live in this home and thus leave his mother and grandmother alone. This could also change, say the lawyers from Stara Zagora involved in the project.

At local level in Stara Zagora, Varna and Veliko Tarnovo the project has already established a pilot coordination mechanism for the protection of victims of domestic and gender-based violence. It synchronizes the activities against domestic violence of the local units of the Ministry of Interior, the court, the prosecutor’s office, the Ministry of Labour and Social Policy, the legal profession, etc., with the aim of providing victims with more effective protection and achieving faster results.

In Stara Zagora they also unite around the idea that when there is a signal of domestic violence, regardless of which institution it is filed in, the victims should receive immediate legal assistance from the lawyers working on the issue. “The first moment a victim reports, he or she should be consulted and know that his or her rights will be protected. Moreover, when talking to victims, lawyers can immediately navigate each of the specific cases and propose effective measures and solutions. This increases access to justice for those social groups that are vulnerable, they learn that they can turn to the courts. At the same time, the lawyer can prepare the documents for the court free of charge for these people, if they are eligible for such assistance,” said Dilyana Gineva, the lawyer leading the project in Stara Zagora.