Human Rights House Zagreb recently published a thematic report Primary legal aid – perspective of authorised providers. Given that legal aid is an institute whose aim it is to ensure equal access to justice for all Croatian citizens as one of the fundamental human rights, Human Rights House Zagreb wanted to address some of the main problems that arise in this system and encourage their improvement with this research. Primary legal aid in Croatia is burdened by numerous obstacles, most of which do not arise out of the legislative framework that regulates legal aid, but out of the manner in which it is implemented in practice. In this qualitative research we included 14 associations providers of legal aid and, in their selection, we managed to achieve national coverage, i.e. include all of the counties in which such associations exist. The research team of the Human Rights House conducted semi-structured interviews with 14 providers which were then transcribed and analysed.
The analysis of empirically obtain data indicated three main issues that arise in the provision of primary legal aid. The first problem is also a fundamental one and concerns the financing of providers’ projects. The Ministry of Justice holds a tender for the financing of projects of authorised providers (associations and legal clinics), however, those tenders tend to be delayed up to several months, as do their results. There are numerous consequences of such delays. Apart from leaving the providers without the means necessary for them to operate for almost the entirety of the year, the providers’ work is characterised by uncertainty. Many experts working in those associations volunteer or work in their free time outside of their regular jobs because providers often cannot afford to finance them. The same problem affects both the mobile teams that are supposed to go into the field and provide primary legal aid in parts of Croatia where such associations are non-existent, and there are many such areas. In addition, year by year the State continues to reduce the budget funds allocated to legal aid providers through a tender, so a very small number of associations even manages to gain financial resources. The next issue concerns the geographical distribution of associations in Croatia. As mentioned, in many parts of Croatia there are no associations that provide primary legal aid. The associations try to deal with this problem by going out and organising mobile teams, but they are often unable to conduct such activities due to a lack of financial resources. This deprives many citizens in rural and remote parts of Croatia of the opportunity to access legal aid. The next issue concerns public knowledge of the existence of legal aid – most citizens are unaware that such a mechanism exists, the state does not take any steps to inform them of legal aid and the associations themselves lack funds to finance campaigns to inform citizens of their right to legal aid. For this reason, a large number of citizens do not use legal aid because they are unaware of the fact that such a protection mechanism exists despite the fact that the number of people who need free legal counselling is on the rise, which is in keeping with the socio-economic situation in the country – high unemployment and poverty risk rate.
The results of this research show that there is a need for thoughtful investments in the legal aid system. In addition, the legal aid system must also be based on national analyses of social needs in order to adequately address the needs of the citizens and provide them with effective access to justice.
The report is currently available only in Croatian.