On 20-21 October 2016, international conference “Strengthening Community Legal Capacities” took place, jointly organized by the project Quality and accessible legal aid in Ukraine funded by the Government of Canada and implemented by the Canadian Bureau for International Education, the International Renaissance Foundation, and the Coordination Center for Legal Aid Provision. Experts from Ukraine and other countries of the world discussed the community experience in protection of their rights and upholding their interests.
How do you engage a community into the process of quality changes? How can one influence corruption traditions? How can we resolve disputes without resorting to court and strengthen legal capacities of vulnerable population groups? How do we resolve legal issues without lawyers? How to overcome bureaucratic, administrative and financial barriers, create favourable conditions for exercising legal capacities and equal access to justice?
The mentioned issued were discussed by the participants, namely, national experts, officials, public figures, activists, and volunteers, as well as practicing experts from other countries, including Canada, the USA, South Africa, and Pakistan.
At the opening ceremony, Natalia Sevostyanova, First Deputy Minister of Justice of Ukraine, reminded that a system of free legal aid had been established and was functioning in Ukraine, and today, almost 550 offices providing access thereto – legal aid centres and bureaus – operated across the country. “However the activities of the state protection system in Ukraine must be parallel to strengthening community legal capacities. Citizens have to learn how to defend their rights themselves and possess skills necessary in order to use those protection tools that the state provides. We have to do everything in our power so that citizens knew their rights and could defend them on their own”, she emphasized. On the other hand, the First Deputy Minister noted, the strengthening of citizens’ legal awareness will facilitate increased responsibility before them on the part of local authorities.
“It is very gratifying to us that this is the first event on such a high level, which is dedicated to strengthening legal capacities and legal possibilities of territorial communities”, said Andrii Vyshnevskyi, Director of the Coordination Center for Legal Aid Provision. He emphasized that this was a working meeting aimed at supporting public activists working at territorial community levels and “daring to support communities in their fight for their rights, helping people to better know and use law as a tool.” He informed that many of the conference participants had come to Kharkiv from towns and even villages. In addition, the Director of the Coordination Center that it was not without the reason that Kharkiv had been chosen as a conference venue as many of its participants were representatives of the neighbouring Donetsk and Luhansk regions where human rights issues were coming to the foreground more and more acutely. Therefore, the conference aimed to support this group of public activists too. “We wanted to create this event as a communicative “platform” for you where you will be able to present the best practices, cases, and establish working contacts. The networking of public activists means strengthening community capacities through communication with them. Therefore, we will consider this event successful if you resume your contacts tomorrow after you leave”, said Andrii Vyshnevskyi.
“To cut a long story short, I would say this is an event about freedom. After all, an ability to lawfully work for your own benefit, prevent and overcome poverty, an opportunity for a citizen to effectively control the authorities are prerequisites of personal freedom. And therefore, there is law as a tool. Thus, we encourage you to use the law as your daily tool. We invite you to talk about this in the course of these two days”, urged the Coordination Centre Director.
Director, Head of International Development Section of the Embassy of Canada in Ukraine Karim Morcos highlighted the importance of such initiatives in Ukraine for the Canadian Government: “The Canadian Government is very proud that it is associated with such an event. We want to help Ukraine to switch to democracy and the rule of law to the fullest extent. And we see this concept — the expansion of legal capacities — as an important process.” He expressed hope that this conference would become a beginning of the long-term partnership in the field of legal capacities expansion. “We hope that this event is the beginning of a major international network and innovations in the field of expansion of legal rights, because it is impossible to achieve a status of complete democracy, completely functioning democracy that is, unless we provide the most vulnerable population groups in our society with the possibility to protect and understand their rights. And this is what we are doing here. In fact, we are truly pleased with the willingness of Ukrainian government agencies to fully support it”, said the representative of the Embassy of Canada in Ukraine. He noted fruitful cooperation between the Ukrainian and Canadian parties via implementation of the project Quality and Accessible Legal Aid in Ukraine.
“As the experience of the International Renaissance Foundation proves, newly established communities often cannot self-organize and pursue their opportunities. Legal knowledge is critical for this. One must know not only what is important in the law, but also know how to apply it”, its executive Director Yevhen Bystrytskyi is convinced.
“This is about strengthening legal capacities or empowering all territorial communities: from associations like those on Maidan to decentralized communities, which have to self-govern themselves in Ukraine. This is about all citizens understanding their rights. Strengthening legal capacities, theoretical and practical knowledge, ensuring everyone as a citizen with regard to his or her rights make it possible to feel civil dignity”, he noted.
“First of all, the Quality and Accessible Legal Aid in Ukraine Project is aimed at supporting the development of free legal aid institutions in Ukraine. Supporting networking with communities and the public is among its main components. The Canadian experience proves that it is important to account for the needs existing in particular communities. However, each community has its peculiarities, therefore, an individual approach is needed. We are happy to support this event and hope that the discussion will be beneficial, while the project will keep supporting such networking”, said Larissa Bezo, Project Director, Vice-President of the Canadian Bureau for International Education.
For two days, the conference members discussed why it was so complicated to legally empower Ukrainian communities: what it meant in the context of the Ukrainian system of free legal aid, why it was necessary and what international experience Ukraine might use in order to enhance the efficiency of this project. The concept of legal empowerment of communities was presented by expert, former Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Policy and Planning, Public Affairs and Communication Services of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Ewa Kmieczyk, and from the Ukrainian perspective, by expert, Director of the Practical Policy Programme at the Institute of Political Education Oleksandr Solontai.
After the first day of the event, the conference operated in 5 thematic groups.
How and to involve community in the process of quality changes and why?
“People may serve as the real driving force for changes, which leads to improvement of life quality, including its safety and sustainable development» – this is what participants of the first working group talked about. They shared examples from communities that were actively utilizing those mechanisms for participation and protection of rights stipulated in the Ukrainian legislation. They discussed multiple good practices and examples in Ukraine where initiatives of activists and volunteers made it possible to resolve or prevent serious issues or improve people’s lives. At the same time, many people do not understand the need for public engagement, do not believe in it, stay indifferent to inefficient management or corrupt schemes or the fate of their community, their own fate. Former Deputy Commissioner of Strategic Policy and Planning, Public Affairs and Communication Services of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Ewa Kmieczyk, Executive Director at a community legal clinic (Ontario, Canada) Hugh Tye, and Iqbal Sarwar of the Sarhad Rural Support programme (Pakistan) talked about possible ways of addressing this, as well as experiences of their own countries.
How can one influence corruption traditions?
“Empowering a community that knows and is willing to protect its rights, may be one of the efficient methods to combat unfair behaviour and corruption. The experience proves that personal involvement of the community and public oversight over the activities of authorities significantly contribute to transparency and accountability, as well as reduce possibilities for corruption. Using alternative and at the same time efficient mechanisms of addressing issues is an important factor impacting those corruptive traditions that exist in the society. People need to understand what they lose by resorting to corruption, and what they may gain by refusing from it. Many factors depend on the community, on the things that people are willing to turn a blind eye on, what they would rather tolerate, and what they deem unacceptable”, this was discussed in the thematic group moderated by lawyer Vitaliy Kasko. What may an amalgamated community do to combat corruptive schemes (bribery, abuse, etc.) and which tools may serve as alternatives to established corrupt practices — this is what Ukrainian experts explained based on the example of the establishment of a foundation for disposal of parent committee funds for combating corruption in schools, operation of online services of the Ministry of Justice as a tool to combat “grass-root” corruption, defending access to the Dnipro waterfront by the community of Mykolska Slobidka. Vivek Maru, a representative of NAMATI movement from India, told in a video conference about the experience of helping over 40 thousand local community representatives from African countries, Central and Eastern Asia, North and South Americas through strengthening their legal capacities to uphold their rights, including the right to land, environmental and healthcare rights.
What are alternative ways of resolving a dispute?
“Alternative, i.e. pre-trial, ways of dispute resolution often enable an essentially faster and cheaper resolution of the conflict on the merits. In addition, in mediation, the parties themselves select the resolution option that would meet interests and needs of all parties to the conflict. Statistics proves that agreements reached as a result of mediation are fulfilled much more diligently than a court decision”, this view was supported by participants of the discussion in the third thematic group. National experts discussed Ukrainian examples of mediation in courts, school environments, use of the dialogue-oriented approach within communities in relation to integration of IDPs and ATO participants, reconciliation agreements in the criminal proceedings. Michele Leering of the Community Advocacy & Legal Center in Ontario, Canada, also shared her experiences with the participants.
How can one empower vulnerable population groups?
“Each group has its peculiarities, which hamper the exercise of their rights. Vulnerable population groups need special approaches and particular attention from the state and the community. The first step, when working with vulnerable categories, is their identification and development of targeted services that will purposefully help this very population group. There are numerous examples of such type of aid — relief consignments for IDPs, free medical observation. However, resources for targeted aid are scarce. The main objective of empowering vulnerable groups is to teach them to uphold and protect their rights, mobilize the community to promote quality changes”, said the participants of the fourth group. David McKillop, Vice President of Legal Aid Ontario (Canada) spoke about empowering vulnerable groups in Ontario province. Harry A. Slade, Justice of the Supreme Court of British Columbia (Canada), talked about practice of strengthening legal capacities when working with Canadian indigenous population, their involvement in resolving conflicts. Ukrainian experience was presented by national experts focusing on working with such vulnerable groups as Roma communities, HIV patients and their relatives, domestic violence victims, etc.
How do we resolve legal issues without lawyers?
“The number of lawyers in Ukraine is quite high. Every year, new specialists graduate from universities, so almost each city may boast numerous “Lawyer” signboards. Yet many communities do not have free access to these specialists — remote mountain villages, peripheral settlements, “dying” countrysides, and low-income citizens. Such situation dictates the need to establish cooperation between numerous stakeholders and actually to go beyond the legal system as such and engage various potential specialists that could help consult the public and raise awareness about their rights and possibilities”, said the experts in the working group moderated by Larysa Denysenko, human rights activist.
Nonboniso Nangu Macbela, representative of a paralegal network, talked about the experience of the operation of public office network in South Africa. Paralegals who formed a powerful network, receiving support from the government at the national level, have been working in this country for about 50 years now. Professor Reem Bahdi of the University of Windsor (Ontario, Canada) shared some practical examples of development of the judicial training system and legal empowerment in Palestine. Members of the working group determined roles and competences of paralegals, their advantages and potential obstacles. The discussion also touched upon cooperation between the public system and non-governmental free legal aid providers, rural activists as “legal assistants” to communities, and other mechanisms for improving access to justice for people in areas without lawyers.
The second day of the international conference was in the form of plenary sessions where group achievements were presented and discussed, which, according to group members, were particularly useful for further use in the process of their activities.
In the framework of the conference, participants also discussed other issues, such as assessing the needs in community legal empowerment and economic impact of such empowerment, using modern information technologies for legal empowerment, and relevant experiences of Canada (presented by former Attorney General of Ontario, Managing Director of the Legal Innovation Zone at Ryerson University Chris Bentley) and the U.S. (presented by Director of the Immigration Advocates Network Matthew Burnett).
The conference also included a number of accompanying activities to present initiatives, tools, and campaigns (particularly, awareness raising campaigns) to promote human rights and legal empowerment of communities. During one such event, First Deputy Director of the Coordination Center Myroslav Lavrinok presented a five-year overview of the establishment and development of the LA system in Ukraine, prepared and published with the support from the Quality and Accessible Legal Aid in Ukraine Project.
Moreover, the conference experts and participants had an opportunity to view an exhibition of the finalists of the “Legal Empowerment” public service advertising contest and vote for winners who were announced during the conference.
When summarizing the event, Andrii Vyshnevksyi presented his perspective of the role of free legal aid as a communicative platform and a resource centre for empowering legal counsellors and their networking. According to him, it provides a considerable scope for cooperation and mutual strengthening.
“Summarizing two days of work, I suggest something like a programme slogan for future work: share someone else’s problem and get together around positive ideas”, said Andrii Vyshnevskyi.
“Legal empowerment is really on time in the Ukrainian context. First of all, this is because it can play a critical transformational role when this very transformation is a precondition for the survival and development of our society”, said Roman Romanov, Director of the Programme Initiative Human Rights and Justice, noting that both active position of the entire community and of each of its members were equally important for strengthening legal capacities.
In her closing remarks, Larissa Bezo, Director of the Project Quality and Accessible Legal Aid in Ukraine, Vice-President of the Canadian Bureau for International Education noted, “We believe that the conference has achieved its goal to promote the dialogue between representatives of various groups which successfully work on empowering communities both in Ukraine and abroad. In two days of sharing experiences, we have seen numerous innovative tools and approaches, as well as methods of interaction within the community, which facilitate not only legal empowerment, but also the development of economic and political capacities of communities, which is especially topical for Ukraine, in particular at the local level.”
The conference organizers plan to keep developing the experience of discussing advantages, approaches, methods, and tools for community legal empowerment within the framework of an international conference.
The event was organized by:
More information on the results of the international conference can be found on the website www.lep.in.ua.
View conference photo gallery here.