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Belgian lawyers challenge legal aid reform

editor - February 7, 2018 - legal aid


Belgian lawyers are protesting this Wednesday 7th February against the 2016 reform of the national legal aid system, which they say makes it more difficult for people to obtain free legal assistance.

The protests are held before the Brussels seat of the Constitutional Court, which is currently reviewing a constitutional challenge brought by Plateforme Justice pour Tous (Platform Justice for Everyone), a coalition of civil society organisations. The group are being represented by lawyer Marie Doutrepont.

The claimants are invoking article 23 of the Belgian Constitution, which protects the right to human dignity.

“According to the Constitution, human dignity implies the right to legal assistance” said Doutrepont, who added that “the reform also violates article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the right to a fair trial”.

The reform introduced an administrative fee starting at 50€ (20€ for the designation of the legal aid lawyer and 30€ for the first procedure) for any individual requesting legal aid, including those who qualify for state-provided legal assistance. The fee increases by 30€ for any appeal procedure.

“In theory, one could ask to be exempted from this fee” said Doutrepont “but in practice the procedure is cumbersome and lengthy”.

The 2016 bill also modified the criteria for granting legal aid, making it more difficult to prove one’s own needs and justify their own conditions. For instance, “a homeless person who is being hosted by a friend” said Doutrepont “will need to prove that this arrangement is only temporary and does not have an impact on their resources”.

Compensation for the work of legal aid lawyers is also problematic. According to the claimants, legal aid lawyers have no information nor assurance as to the amount of the remuneration they would be able to claim for work they have been doing since the entry into force of the reform, i.e. September 1, 2016. In the absence of a clear framework and of an adequate compensation, many lawyers decide not to take up legal aid cases anymore.

“You’ll always find a young lawyer who is willing to work for free” said Doutrepont “but this contributes to the devaluation of the legal aid profession, and moreover violates the right to access justice and to have access to quality defence”.

According to official reports, beneficiaries of legal aid have decreased by 30% across Belgium since the entry into force of the 2016 bill. The claimants interpret this data as evidence of the harsh limits imposed on the granting of legal aid.

Some 30 civil society organisations have joined the appeal introduced by Plateforme Justice pour Tous.

The Belgian protests happen only a few days after similar demonstrations in The Hague, where Dutch lawyers opposed cuts to the national legal aid system.

In 2016, the European Union adopted a binding Directive on the right to legal aid, which requires member states to “take necessary measures, including with regard to funding, to ensure that […] there is an effective legal aid system that is of an adequate quality […]. Member states have until May 2019 to transpose the Directive into domestic law. At Fair Trials, we will closely monitor this crucial window to ensure meaningful and full transposition is carried out in every Member State and that current shortcomings are tempered in national legislation.

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