Access to pro-bono legal services in Azerbaijan

Legal aid and pro bono legal services are available in Azerbaijan in some form, but a structured and efficient system at the national level which guarantees access to vulnerable and disadvantaged groups is not yet in place.

Steps are being taken by some institutions to establish a more robust system to give timely access to free legal aid to those who most need it. Vafa Rovshanova (JST 2017 Fellow), a Senior Project Officer at the Council of Europe in Azerbaijan was, at the time of her John Smith Fellowship Programme, responsible for the implementation of a joint project between the Council of Europe and the European Union under the umbrella name: ‘Partnership for Good Governance’. She was keen to contribute to the improvement of a more widely available and structured system of legal aid for vulnerable groups in her country and so this was the focus of her Action Plan as part of her JST Fellowship Programme.

The details of Vafa’s Action Plan included establishing an online free legal aid platform; strengthening capacity of relevant stakeholders providing free legal aid through technical assistance; providing awareness-building activities for target groups and establishing a network of state and non-state actors providing free legal aid (for example, the Bar Association, legal clinics at the Justice Academy and universities, national human rights institutions, private companies and lawyers, NGOs).

While in the UK, and as part of her meetings focused on her Action Plan, Vafa met with Liz Dobson, Chief Executive Officer of Citizens Advice in Epsom & Ewell; Kerry Trewern of the Glasgow School of Law at Glasgow University; Laura Jones of the BPP Law School in London, and Rachel Jones from Justice (an NGO promoting access to justice, human rights and the rule of law). Vafa was inspired by the ‘culture of volunteering’ that she witnessed at the Citizens Advice Bureau – the dedication and passion of those who give their time and efforts pro-bono to help people. And she was particularly impressed by seeing effective legal clinic programmes in action as part of law schools and how they organise and manage the programmes, work with students and mentor solicitors, evaluate the process and so on.

Vafa says, ‘The JST Fellowship Programme gave me the opportunity to explore the best practices and models in free legal aid implementation in the UK. The knowledge and materials gained during the meetings were so valuable and practical that I was able to successfully organise and manage a legal clinic programme at the Justice Academy of Azerbaijan upon my return home’.

The establishing of the legal clinic programme involved training law students at the Justice Academy in pro-bono legal services and legal aid. This programme was launched by the Council of Europe in 2018 at the Academy of Justice with an intensive training course on various professional legal skills, as well as human rights issues – all modelled on the programmes Vafa saw at the law schools in the UK. By the end of the year, those who successfully completed the course were engaged by the legal clinic at the Academy to offer pro-bono advice to the vulnerable as well as the general population. As well as providing the important access to justice, the project sees the benefit to legal students who get valuable hands-on legal experience such as interviewing and advising clients, doing legal research and drafting legal documents (including applications to the European Court of Human Rights) – and all under the supervision of qualified lawyers. A further positive outcome was the improvement of awareness of the availability of free legal aid services in Azerbaijan thanks to advocacy on social media, targeting certain groups.

The project officially ended in December 2018 and given its success, the European Union decided to continue with it, although without the partnership of the Council of Europe. Vafa is currently involved in another legal project – this time a joint project with the Council of Europe and European Union on ‘Strengthening the efficiency and quality of the judicial system in Azerbaijan’ which is also under ‘Partnership for Good Governance’ – thus continuing with her commitment to make a positive difference in her country and society!