Civil Rights Project Sisak (CRP Sisak) is a non-governmental organization providing free legal assistance in accordance with the Law on Free Legal Aid (Official Gazette 143/13.)
Free legal aid is a way of facilitating access to courts and other public bodies to socially and economically vulnerable categories of citizens, in order to provide professional legal assistance for the effective realization of legal protection on equal terms.
The Free Legal Aid Act was brought in 2008. The entry into force of the Law in February 2009 in the Republic of Croatia should have brought a comprehensive system of providing free legal assistance to persons with lower financial means in solving their existential issues. Today, the Free Legal Aid Act, which was amended in 2014, is in effect. The same Law has made improvements in terms of accessing primary legal aid to citizens, but has not yet systematically solved the free legal aid system in the Republic of Croatia. At the same time, the EU, including civil society donors and even domestic, Croatian institutions, believe that the system of free legal aid in the Republic of Croatia exists and considers that providers do not need to be specifically funded.
Given that the above attitude is absolutely incorrect, CRP Sisak seeks to highlight the problems that it is encountering, as a provider of free legal aid, on a daily basis and in cooperation with other associations, it tries to improve free legal aid in the Republic of Croatia.
The current Law is dissatisfying today, both for providers and for users.
The primary problem is that the primary legal aid providers receive educed funding each year, as well as the fact that the funds provided for free legal aid are received late in each year. For example, in 2017, the maximum amount that associations will receive is 75,000 HRK (around 10,000 EUR) for the whole year, and the same amount will be paid to associations only in October or November.
Also, the problem faced by legal aid providers is the fact that the financing system is not of a multi-year nature, so there is no guarantee of the continuity of the legal aid provider, because they do not know if they will receive financial resources next year and thus have a direct impact on the users as well. Their legal problem will not be solved. Through the work of CRP, we have seen that the number of users is increasing, only last year we provided legal assistance to 4074 users who are increasingly socially vulnerable and are in need of legal assistance to solve their problem.
Solution to the problem lies in changing the current Law by increasing funds in the financing of legal aid, including making funds for primary and secondary legal aid equal. Thus, primary legal aid is of a preventive nature and it is very important to reduce the number of court and other unnecessary proceedings that Croatia is burdened with. It is also very important because it deals with administrative procedures that attorneys at law do not deal with much. Citizens find these administrative procedures very important because they involve their pensions, social security rights, health insurance, status issues, personal documents, etc.
It is also necessary to ensure that multi-year funding is provided to legal aid providers, as this will ensure continuity in order to provide free legal aid with as high quality as possible. Care should be taken to ensure that funds are provided to providers who have experience in free legal aid and are effective, as well as to take account of the territorial division, so that users across Croatia have the same conditions. We also advocate for a change of the Law in such a way that the existing possibility of financing from local self-government becomes an obligation.
Why is the system of free legal aid important? From our experience, we have realized that legal literacy is limited, that we have more and more socially vulnerable populations and they do not know who to turn to, how to exercise their rights, as well as the fact that they cannot solve their problems effectively, especially regarding more and more repressive laws and frequent changes to laws, which often do not concern the well-being of citizens, such as the Execution Act. Everything can be solved quickly and efficiently with the help of a competent legal advisor through the system of free legal aid. The system of free legal aid should be used to protect against over-costs, as this is the most common obstacle for beneficiaries to access justice and to realize their rights.
In Sisak, 10 October 2017