Free legal aid in Finland and Russia: Experiences and Prospects

On June 6th the Consulate General of Finland in St. Petersburg hosted a long-awaited seminar on “Free Legal Aid in Finland and Russia.” These were the first talks held on the subject in the past three years. It was attended by the representative of the Finish Ministry of Justice, the Head of State of Finland’s largest law office, Russian and Finnish advocates, lawyers, directors of lawyer chambers in the St. Petersburg and Leningrad region, experts and representatives from NGOs in St. Petersburg.

The Federal law on the state system of free legal aid came into force on January 15th 2012. Tatiana Timofeeva, Deputy President of the Bar Association of St. Petersburg, noted that providing legal aid means incurring high administrative costs. A number of necessary expenses (translations, notarized copies of documents) may be paid by the client. There are also issues with providing free legal assistance to foreign nationals. In order to receive free legal assistance in St. Petersburg, even Russian citizens should be registered in St. Petersburg.

Publicly subsidized legal assistance is available in Finland regardless of nationality, the result of Finland signing and ratifying the Hauge Convention on International Access to Justice in 1988. The Russian Federation is not a signatory of this international document. The right to free legal aid is guaranteed to anyone whose case is pending in the court of Finland.

A significant difference in the Russian system is that free legal aid is only provided to citizens. Currently in Finland, only 20% of cases in which state law firms provide free legal assistance are for citizens, 25% are matrimonial and family matters, 24% are issues of inheritance, and 16% are criminal. 36% of all office hours are for legal advice. 20% of cases are brought to court.

In Finland, free legal aid is provided to people earning less than 600 Euros a month after all deductions. For people earning 601-1300 Euros a month, free legal aid may be partially granted, that is at a reduced price. State law offices in Finland provide 60% of legal aid completely free of charge, while in Russia in order to receive free legal aid, a citizen must be poor or belong to a category of citizens enumerated in the law.

According to Andrea Pelevin, Vice President of the Bar Association of the Leningrad Region the narrow range of categories of citizens and types of cases enumerated prevents many from accessing services desperately needed. In 2013 in the Leningrad Region, 80% of those provided free legal assistance were handicapped.

At one time, State law offices existed in only 10 regions in Russia. After the adoption of Federal Law № 324-FZ regions themselves can choose which organizational structure they will use for the provision of legal assistance to citizens. For example, the state legal office continues to work in the Republic of Karelia, In Primorskii Krai the State Law Office was established in 2013, and in St. Petersburg the operator of state legal aid is the Bar Association of St. Petersburg.

The provision of free legal aid in the Leningrad region involved 95 lawyers (one in ten). In 2013, the Government of the Leningrad region provided legal aid in the amount of 200,000 rubles. In comparison, the State Law Office of Helsinki has 16 lawyers. Every year, each lawyer will examine 200 cases, resulting in an annual budget of 2 million Euros. The wait upon reception is about 2 weeks. In Finland there are in total, 220 state legal assistants and support staff, as well as, 2,000 lawyers involved, representing 10% of all lawyers in private practice. The number of cases using free legal aid is twice as great as the number using private legal assistance.

The State will only compensate Finnish lawyers providing legal aid in the case of trial. If the case is non-judicial, then free legal aid is only provided by public legal offices. According to research by the Ministry of Justice of Finland, the quality of services provided by public legal offices, and services provided by private attorneys are at the same level. It should be noted that in state law firms much attention is paid to personal growth. Lawyers are able to learn from attorneys, prosecutors, and judges. A position in this office is highly prestigious, and often 100 people will apply for an open position.

Arkady Gutnikov, Director of the Institute of Law in the name of Prince Oldenburg led the seminar, a report on the findings of sociological research on the “Peculiarities of Legal Aid Provided by Non-Profit Organization in the North-West of the Russian Federation.” The final report of the study will be available in October of 2014.

According to the expert, the amount of free legal assistance provided by NGOs in Russia cannot be measured. However, all organization featured in the research provide legal consultations, 75% of organizations helped file appeals, 67% of organizations took appeals to court, 48% of organizations provide information on legislation.

In accordance with Federal Law № 324-FZ, NGOs can enter the system of non-governmental free legal aid in one of two ways: either through legal clinics and, or the establishment of non-governmental legal aid centers. These centers should be registered through a special registry with the Ministry of Justice.
In his report, Arkady Gutnikov noted that only 27% of NGOs interact with lawyers. However, Gutnikov believes there are several opportunities for collaboration between NGOs and lawyers. These opportunities include a system for forwarding clients and a unified information monitoring service for the needy. Currently hindering collaboration is the provision of primary and secondary (more skilled) free legal aid, which can divide NGOs and lawyers. However, there are many admirable examples of cooperation between employees of NGOs and lawyers on specific cases.

The discussion identified several areas for potential development within Russia’s free legal aid system. During the discussion, the popularization and implementation of proactive strategies to ensure access were to areas of Russia’s free legal aid system participants believed should be targeted for development. Also considered to be important was the development of a regional system connecting providers of free legal aid, as well as training and support for paralegals (specialists with extensive experience rendering legal aid, but lack a higher legal education). Participants also discussed the prospect of developing mechanisms to partially subsidize legal aid and to evaluate the quality of aid provided.

The final section of the event discussed international cooperation, in particular the possibility of forwarding clients to lawyers capable of providing council in a foreign language. Chairman of “Citizens Watch,” Elena Shakhova invited lawyers from both countries to monitor trials and Deputy Chairman of “Citizens Watch,” Maria Razumovskaya, invited participants to express their ideas for further interaction and forms of exchange with foreign colleges.