The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) has been founded in order to provide free legal assistance to socially vulnerable layers of the population in cases provided by law. According to the information on the official website of the Chamber of Advocates of the RA, the PDO has 52 public defenders filling 49 FTE positions (6 public defenders work half-time). 25 public defenders work in Yerevan City, and 27 work in the regions. Irvaban.net talked to the first deputy chairman of the Chamber of Advocates Arthur Hovhannisyan about the free legal assistance and the services of the Public Defender’s Office.
“At the end of 2011 Article 5 of the RA “Law on Advocacy” established that only advocates having license could do legal representation in civil cases. But until recently the Public Defender’s Office provides assistance to very limited cases in case of strict civil cases. Isn’t it too early to make such a legislative amendment?”
“The Public Defender’s Office does not provide limited services, but provides free legal assistance to those to whom the law applies.
I want to understand that the public defenders do not provide limited assistance, but in civil cases they only provide assistance to those to whom the law applies. As for the question whether it is early or not here there is a different problem: that is providing efficient and high-quality legal services. When the advocates represent the interests of their clients, they are obliged to observe the rules of legal ethics, a lot of issues are not regulated in the client-advocate relationships.
For example if the advocate has provided a service to one of the parties, he also has the right to cooperate with the other party. There are such cases when citizens’ interests are represented by a non-lawyer who is not constrained by the rules of ethics. No such rules exist for a non-lawyer, he is only aware of social and legal relationships. His behavior is free and he can abuse this freedom. There has been many cases a citizen has said that “this advocate cheated me, took my money and did not do any work, please punish him and support me”, and we have found out that the person is not even a lawyer. And who suffered here? The citizen, whose interests have been represented by a non-lawyer.”
“Yes, but aren’t there any cases when a public defender rejects to provide assistance to a citizen or accepts him/her not kindly?”
“Today all the applications have been properly studied by the head of the PDO, and if the claim is reasonable and legal protection is needed, the application will not be rejected. It is possible for the citizens to make such a claim that has been considered and rejected by the courts, or they apply to the PDO after missing the deadline of applying to the court. When we reply that “there is no chance” or “the claim is groundless”, the citizen will remain dissatisfied. There was a case when a dissatisfied citizen came to our office, I received him personally and explained why the public defender cannot undertake this case, but again he left dissatisfied.
There was another case when a person required assistance to the corporate dispute, and this is the case when we cannot provide a public defender. We explained to her that the Public Defender’s Office does not provide legal assistance to entrepreneurial cases, and she continued saying that she was a single pensioner and a member of “Paros”, so she had the right to get that free legal assistance. But being a subject is not still enough. Even if the person is a single pensioner living alone and wants to make a property claim exceeding 1 million AMD, we cannot provide a public defender in that case.
(You can get informed who can receive free legal assistance from the Public Defender’s Office here).
“Anyway, it is repeatedly mentioned that the Public Defender’s Office has a high workload. What do you think are 50 public defenders enough?”
“Of course no. Back in 2009-2011, Judicial Reform Strategy envisaged to increase the number of positions for public defenders up to 75 (at the time they were 32). Every year when planning the budget we intend to increase the number but still it is of no use. Recently the salary increased a little based on the increase of the salaries of all the state employees.”
“You said that in 2009-2011 it was planned to increase the number of public defenders up to 75. However their number didn’t change, instead the legislative amendment was made and now only advocates have the right to do legal representation in civil cases. Don’t you see a problem here?”
“I do not see any problem there. The problem is that the budget of the Public Defender’s Office should be planned so that public defenders are able to provide individual legal assistance without high workload. Definitely a person must receive a proper legal service.
Thus, if a person needs a dentist, but has no money, can we allow a person who has no appropriate education and license to perform free medical intervention? He might be well informed of the medical field, but still it is risky.”
“Anyway, that problem exists.”
“You know we have ocer 1500 advocates, who perform a lot of free work. There are non-governmental organizations that have advocate employers who provide free assistance. And to say that a person has no money and could not get assistance because of that is very unique.
“But is it right for the government to make legislative amendments relying on goodwill of non-governmental organizations and lawyers to provide free services? And the Public Defender’s Office is highly overloaded and cannot provide assistance to everyone.”
“But why can’t we help? The reason is that either the claim is groundless or simply free legal assistance is not prescribed by law; there is no other option. If there are grounds, the PDO undertakes the case no matter how many cases the office has to handle. We never reject an application because of the workload, it is excluded. If the claim is reasonable we cannot say that we do not take it on as we have a lot of work to do, and the Chamber attentively follows that such incidents are excluded.
“The specialists claim that in case of heavy workload a person is simply unable to work well, to avoid mistakes. During the interview the chairman of the Criminal Chamber of the Court of Cassation mentioned that judicial errors happen as a result of the overload of judges.”
“Yes, there is heavy workload, but in order the quality of the services do not suffer we perform quality monitoring. That means the Chamber carries out regular surveillance on public defenders, in order to ensure that heavy workload will not lead to the reduction of the quality. Programs are implemented in order to relieve the Public Defender’s Office. Funded by OSCE Office in Yerevan we carry out two projects: in the first case the advocates (and not only public defenders) visit penitentiaries and provide free legal advice to the interested convicts and detainees. In the second case the advocates visit regions and provide free legal advice.
I also want to mention that every Thursday our advocates and the listeners of the Advocate School provide free advice to all citizens on the second floor of the Chamber of Advocates, regardless whether they have the right to receive free legal assistance or not.
Interview by Astghik Karapetyan