In this edition of Cu DREPTul podcast, we are discussing with lawyer Arina Țurcan-Donțu about the study “Good Practices in Facilitating Access to Justice in Moldova” she recently conducted.

For this study, the author documented local, regional and national initiatives that have facilitated access to justice for the population and have the potential for expansion, uptake and/or institutionalization, highlighted several international models that can be adapted for vulnerable and marginalized groups in Moldova, and interviewed various actors involved in this field to understand the barriers and challenges in operationalizing and expanding such practices. The research was conducted in the framework of the project “Access to Justice in Moldova.” 

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: I was pleasantly surprised because we have many models of good practice in facilitating access to justice and the important thing is that they continue. So, I’m going to start with the most vulnerable groups, and they include the people who live in rural areas.

They are vulnerable because they are located in an area where they have less access to legal services, including because of the costs to travel to the district center, on the one hand, and we have predominantly old people in the rural area, which is already a double vulnerability, on the other hand. If the person is also a representative of an ethnic group, such as the Roma, again, they are in a state of increased vulnerability.

That is why, in the study, we started with the mobile teams which are currently operational and which particularly travel to remote areas of cities and villages. We have described three mobile team practices but there are certainly more. We have described the practice of Bălți Legal Clinic; they go to rural localities and provide primary legal aid. This would mean that, depending on the problem the person has, they receive consultation based on the papers they have because, indeed, many do not even have papers. Since 24 February we have had a refugee crisis and together with CASMED Civic Association, has extended their mobile team onto the refugees who had been placed both in a shelter in the north of the country and in communities.

Another mobile team initiative or model is the mobile team that has been developed by the National Roma Centre. This team, made up of two lawyers, travelled to remote localities, with predominantly Roma people, and provided them with primary legal aid. We argued why we believed it was necessary for these teams to continue their work, including because groups that are vulnerable are often not open to being cooperative with others they do not know and have not tested for harmlessness.

I also described those teams that have been mobile for the elderly; I mean the initiative that has been implemented by HelpAge. They also provide primary legal, psychological and social assistance to older people who are also subject to violence. Statistics show that, in many cases, women, especially older women, may be subject to violence but they often do not report it because they are dependent on their caregivers, i.e. older children or other relatives, and that is why they do not turn to the authorities or other people in the community. There is also that rural solidarity, i.e. they do not want people to hear. These teams come into the community and assist them. 

Cu DREPTul: A separate chapter is about services for victims of domestic violence and gender-based violence, which, in fact, is also your area of expertise as a lawyer. What are the model practices described?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: The chapter is generically called gender-based victims but we have divided the practices and models into two chapters: services that are available to victims of domestic violence, victims of human trafficking and victims of other forms of gender-based violence. For example, services for children who are victims of violence, because these are different from models for adults.

When we talked about victims of domestic violence, we first started with the day centers, as we call them, i.e. where victims can receive primary legal and psychological counseling. These centers are developed, for the most part, by NGOs that provide these services either on a mixed basis, because the pandemic has taught us to diversify services – by telephone and physically. I described the practice of the Women’s Law Centre which provides primary legal aid, qualified legal aid, i.e. lawyers are appointed to represent the victim throughout the process, as well as to provide psychological and vocational counseling.

Vocational counseling is very important for victims of domestic violence. This would mean economic empowerment of women.

I described this practice because it is complex. Why? Because often victims of domestic violence say, “OK, I’ll come and stay for half a year at the center, but what happens after that? Where will I go? Just to support myself, do I need rent or do I need to pay for my children’s schooling?” It is this vocational counseling and economic empowerment programs that help victims lead independent lives.

This model is also implemented in other localities and by other organizations such as the “Memoria” Center; Promo-LEX and other organizations that are part of the “Life without Violence” Coalition provide services and I indicated the contact information of all these organizations, so that the victim has the territorial possibility to turn to the one that is closest.

By the way, a shelter was opened for the first time in TAU Gagauzia in 2020 and, at this point, we have virtually covered all country’s areas with shelters for victims. This was the second stage of services as day services are usually used when the victim is in crisis or not yet ready to go to law enforcement, just wants to ask for a consultation to decide what to do next.

However, we have the second stage, which is the shelter, where the victim can be placed together with her children, where she receives all the services, starting with food, medical consultation, she receives psychological assistance and social assistance. The shelters for victims of domestic violence operate differently. Most of them were created either in partnership with the local public administration, with the methodological support of the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection, or later they were transferred into authorities’ management but they still access projects to be able to maintain the team and to continue working. We currently have nine centers. We could say shelters have mixed funding.

Many times, some models were good as long as they operated based on projects, with donor support, but when the state took them over, they became anonymous due to budget austerity.

That is why this mixed formula was proposed, with state subsidy, but also with the possibility of accessing funds from donors.

I also described a new service that is still being developed and not open yet – the first center for victims of sexual violence in the Republic of Moldova. Most likely, this center will be opened in Ungheni district, in partnership with the local public administration. This would mean that victims of sexual violence, in addition to forensic examination, psychological counseling, legal counseling, and medical rehabilitation, would be able to receive services which are expensive and victims often cannot afford them, and would also be able to use placement services in this center.

Cu DREPTul: For this category of beneficiaries, why is it important that services are integrated, and not just legal aid provided to them? 

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: Exactly. When we work with victims, it is different from when we work with people who simply interact with the justice system as an offender or as a suspect, accused, or defendant. Let’s not forget that when the victim comes to a counsellor, whether they are a lawyer or a legal professional, they come with a traumatic experience behind them and often they may not even perceive the consultation that we give them, not because they are not listening to us or not paying attention, but because their situation at that point does not allow them to understand certain things. Therefore, they need to be in a safe and protective environment at that time. This is where psychological assistance, as we call it, can help to stabilize them, so that they can understand what the lawyer is telling them.

A victim’s basic need is to feel safe, and in order to feel safe, they need placement or to have an emergency restraint requested as it is difficult for a person to think about what she is going to do next – get a divorce, write a complaint, go to a forensic expert, if she’s not safe, she thinks about where she’s going to sleep tonight, if she’s not going to be beaten or chased away, and so on.

Placement is very and very important, even many of my fellow lawyers claim, “How, we started the process, we worked so hard, and then the victim changed their mind?”… It can happen that the victim is not cooperative afterwards with the lawyer or the legal adviser, because they have realized that they are afraid to go further, they cannot, they do not have the money, and that is why the economic empowerment programs I was talking about are important.

If we only focus on legal aid, we will fail to cover all the needs and this will no longer be a service that we would call qualitative access to justice.

For victims, access to justice, in addition to placement programs, social programs for economic empowerment and psychological assistance, also means monetary support programs which they need as many of them are dependent on their perpetrators. In order to get to court, they need transport, several meetings, for example, and then these still have to be covered by someone as otherwise the court is not accessible because they do not have the 100 lei to go to court once a month.

This model is also valid for victims of human trafficking; we described the services that are in place for them, including legal, psychological counseling and placement services where victims can be sheltered. We have opened another service, again, an innovative model for the Republic of Moldova. A shelter for male victims of human trafficking was opened in 2021. 

Cu DREPTul: What makes this service innovative?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: We say innovative, because when this phenomenon appeared in the Republic of Moldova, statistically we had more women victims, usually trafficked for sexual exploitation. Two to three years ago, the statistics began to reverse; the number of men who became victims of human trafficking increased, and this is what reports show, with men more often as victims of exploitation through physical labor. The state then found it necessary to create such a service. It was created, as I said, in 2021 by the International Organization for Migration in partnership with the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection. It is now located in Chișinău, has ten places and provides legal, psychological and placement assistance. In our recommendations, we indicated that such a practice should be expanded to cover the entire territory as often victims return to their communities, go home and can access these services where they are. 

Cu DREPTul: While we’re on the subject of victims, do we also have models of good practice for perpetrators? 

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: Domestic perpetrators are a special subject as we have ratified the Istanbul Convention, which for the Republic of Moldova entered into force on 1 May 2022. In the context of the ratification of the Convention, in addition to the programs and services for victims, the state is obliged to develop programs to reduce violent behavior for perpetrators and we have such programs covered by the state.

Unlike other countries, in the Republic of Moldova perpetrators do not have to pay for the programs out of their own money as most of the centers described are run by NGOs in partnership with either the local public administration or the Ministry of Labour and Social Protection.

Currently, a perpetrator can access a violence reduction program when he is ordered by the court upon issue of a protection order. That is, based on a court order, he goes to this center, with the court expressly indicating which center he should go to. We now have centers in the towns of Drochia, Căușeni, and in Chișinău, which have programs with a number of individual and group sessions tailored to the perpetrator. They may also go there based on a court sentence, if the court has issued them a non-custodial sentence and required them to go through a probation program to reduce violent behavior. In this case, he goes to probation and the probation counselor is already directing him to that exact program to reduce violent behavior.

Unfortunately, the results of the study and the interviews showed us that offenders are not very enthusiastic. Some, indeed, go through the program, so that their execution is not changed, but still, looking at the sentences, cases when the court requires them to go through this program are few.

For the most part, the catalyst for violence is alcohol; many of the perpetrators drink alcohol. Respondents suggested that within the violent behavior rehabilitation programs, medical rehabilitation or alcohol rehabilitation programs on different categories should be included or somehow combined, be somehow combined and covered by the state. 

Cu DREPTul: Other vulnerable groups in terms of facilitated access to justice are prisoners and people with disabilities. What are the models of services for these groups?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: It is true that people who are in detention enjoy legal aid guaranteed by the state at the case examination stage but people who are in detention often have legal problems, not necessarily related to their sentences or the exercise of appeals on the case on which they are sitting. Most of the time these are civil disputes related to property rights, mostly with family members. There are also disputes concerning the right to education of children or maintenance payments. There are many questions that prisoners have in relation to the conditions of detention, especially after the compensatory mechanism, as well as the sanctions applied during the execution of the sentence, etc.

While legal aid is available on the subject matter of the sentence, there are virtually no services available on primary care at this stage.

We described a practice which was proposed to be extended, and which is a practice implemented by the Women’s Law Centre in Rusca Prison No. 7.  A team made up of two lawyers and two psychologists provide legal and psychological counselling for three hours on Saturdays. Why Saturdays? Because many inmates, at least the women in Rusca Prison, work on weekdays, and we must find a fair balance between the right to work and the right to access to justice, including legal advice is primary but also qualified.

Accordingly, if they are eligible for state guaranteed legal aid, they are referred to the lawyers who provide services there and are monitored afterwards. If they are eligible according to the center’s requirements, then the center’s lawyers represent them. This practice still works and has given results. It was proposed to be extended, especially in those prisons where people are at the pretrial detention stage or until a sentence is issued, so that they have the possibility to receive counseling or advice from several sources as, in most cases, when they get to execute in prison, for example, in Rusca Prison No. 7, there is already a final and irrevocable sentence in place and, respectively, the timeframes have been missed. We give him access to justice then but the timeframes have been missed already.

Another proposal was that it be extended to include Pruncul Prison Hospital as many convicts spend a long time in the hospital. This can take months, but when we are talking about exercising a right, timeframes are very important and they cannot exercise it without having access to legal advice. With the pandemic – we described a practice – five prisons were equipped with e-justice rooms, with special equipment and so, these prisons may provide remote legal advice using technologies, with certain risks. The beneficiary might not be sure of the confidentiality of a document, on the one hand, and you cannot see all the documents they have, on the other hand, as often they show you written judgments or rulings, while you have to see the reasons. However, a solution would be for us to provide access to all categories, legal aid services must be diversified, i.e. these must be possible both physically and online.

By the way, there are people in prisons with disabilities, including sensory disabilities, who cannot speak and a solution must be found for them as well. 

Cu DREPTul: What service models did you identify for people with disabilities and described in the study?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: We described the “Easy-to-read, easy-to-understand” model, a model that was developed by the “Speranța” Association. They translated documents into an easy-to-understand language. In particular, the translated acts are aimed at people with intellectual impairments or intellectual disabilities, laws that relate to the rights of people with disabilities, so that a person who has an intellectual disability understands in their language what their rights are, where they can go, what they should do and when. Such laws, translated into an easy-to-read, easy-to-understand language, can be accessible not only to people with intellectual disabilities, but also to older people, people who are poorly literate, anyone who does not understand legal language. As a model for people with disabilities, I also described the practice of the Center for Rights of persons with disabilities; they have legal advice and representation provided by lawyers who specialize in strategic litigation cases. 

Cu DREPTul: What does this imply?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: For example, they tested the accessibility of court buildings: all public institutions must have adapted ramps so that people with physical disabilities have unhindered access. However, some of those ramps are not so functional and they carried out an accessibility audit. When we talk about accessibility of proceedings, we do not mean just ramps, this includes the court’s responsiveness to setting the hearing in a room where the person has access to aids, adapted bathrooms, adapted sound, for example, for people with sensory disabilities and many-many other services that should be there. 

Cu DREPTul: So, what does strategic litigation mean?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: Strategic litigation means taking a case that is a systemic problem, for example, in the case of people with mental disabilities until the Civil Code was amended, so that they could no longer be declared incapable because, in the past, if a person was declared incapable that practically could not change during their lifetime. So you take a case, you win it in court and that way you change the law for everyone else. 

Cu DREPTul: Often, in order to avoid many complications, it is easier to prevent. What good models do we have on the prevention side and where, for which groups of people? 

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: In particular, prevention programs are aimed at children or the main beneficiaries are children, pupils, young people, and we described a number of models of programs, primarily for legal information and delinquency prevention. We have legal information programs both in direct format and in electronic format, i.e. electronic courses.

I also referred to a practice that had been developed for children’s rights, “Dragoș’ Challenges”, in the form of a film that depicts how Dragoș deals with certain challenging situations. Obviously, these programs are structured by age. The programs that unfold in schools are mostly implemented together with the National Public Security Inspectorate, a unit of the General Police Inspectorate.

Here we have including the course that has been approved by the Ministry of Education and is to be implemented in schools, aimed at legal information, but also prevention programs, which were developed in 2018 by the Institute for Penal Reforms and piloted together with the General Police Inspectorate in education facilities. I described these programs; most of them are implemented in schools with the help of practitioners, i.e. in addition to the teachers who work in the institutions, trainers who are lawyers, judges, prosecutors, or police officers come and talk to the children about what is wrong to do, what the law forbids us to do, and how to overcome certain challenges. Obviously, all these information courses are tailored and systematized with the approval of the Ministry of Education. 

Cu DREPTul: If we were to talk about the territorial coverage of these models/services, which ones and how evenly distributed are they or aren’t they? 

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: On the violence side, we have coverage for both shelters and day centers practically in all areas; on the prison side, we have a program in Rusca Prison No. 7 while e-justice rooms we only have in five prisons, but there are 17 of them, if I am not mistaken, and they are still to be expanded.

As a rule, services and programs are closer to Chișinău and Bălți municipalities, i.e. in cities or district centers, which is why we considered that it was imperative to continue the mobile team practice, so that those who live far from district centers and from municipalities can have access to justice.

If we are talking about legal information and crime prevention programs for children, they virtually cover the whole territory because they are carried out through schools. As far as the program for people with disabilities is concerned, the associations that provide the services we described are in Chișinău or Bălți. 

Cu DREPTul: Which of the practices described in the study no longer work, even though they are needed?

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: I was talking about a practice which has been launched in psychiatric institutions and in shelters for people with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities. This practice was called “Ombudsman, People’s Advocate in Psychiatric Institutions.” This practice was developed in 2013 with the support of the UN Human Rights Office, which contracted a person and this person would go to those institutions and give primary legal advice to people residing in them. It was a positive practice, because a number of system problems were detected as a result of this service or model, cases that went to court and therefore respondents saw it as particularly useful as people in those institutions often have problems related to family disputes, access to health services, especially property law, inheritance and they need counselling.

A suggestion was made that paralegals could go or representatives of specialized NGOs who have such training could go there to provide it. We identified a practice related to economic rehabilitation or, let us say, economic empowerment of former prisoners. This is very necessary, the Civic Association “Positive Initiative” has such a practice, they have developed entrepreneurship programs for prisoners, and they are needed in all prisons at this stage. 

Cu DREPTul: What would need to happen for some models to be taken over by the state and would this be a solution in general?

I don’t know if totally taken over by the state. The solution that we chose and saw as optimal was to contract the services out to the state.

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: By the way, we have some practices where this mechanism is working, for example, the Women’s Helpline, the Children’s Helpline and the Disability Helpline. These are primary legal advice services and they are procured by the state, but they are provided by NGOs. This shows us that this service works, I mean, this model is possible and it ensures independence; first, the independence of those providing the service; secondly, it decreases the likelihood of bureaucratization; third, when the state subsidizes or contracts there is sustainability and certainty that, look, we’re going to work. Yes, NGOs are able to apply for donor funds, but the minimum is assured, i.e. the state has already contracted the basics, so to say. This model has largely been opted for.

Another model of contracting services is for children, a new model, it is called the Centre for Integrated Assistance for Child Victims, which is located in the municipality of Bălți and we know it as the Barnahus Center which provides integrated services for child victims. The state covers a minimum of costs, subsidizes or contracts the services, and this model can be replicated in other centers. 

Cu DREPTul: What are the main findings presented in the study? 

Arina Țurcan-Donțu: In terms of the mechanism for contracting services by the state and the studies we reviewed, even respondents said that the regulatory framework should be revised so that the process is accessible and not so complicated and difficult to implement. So, the state contracting process; secondly, when we talk about developing services and models at the local level, obviously, local government needs to be involved.

The majority of respondents say that local public administration is often not so responsive or concerned about access to justice issues and they do not prioritize this.

A great deal of them are focused on the development of infrastructure, water, gas, sewage, which we are not saying are not important, they are very important and this is because they are maybe not sensitive to the problems of vulnerable groups, and the infrastructure issue brings them political or electoral capital while they are less interested in other issues. Therefore, a suggestion or a recommendation was to raise awareness, but also to train the mayors, especially with regard to identifying community needs, so that they know what services they need; maybe they have a large Roma community or maybe they have many elderly people. So, to be able to develop a practice you need to know what the needs are and to prioritize them.

As expansion and development, we suggested continuing those models, the mobile teams, and we argued that that was necessary because vulnerable groups physically had no access to services, especially in the context that we all know that public transport costs have increased and that is hard. We also suggested extending the e-Justice Room Service to all prisons, as I said, the programs aimed at legal information, but also primary legal advice for people in detention for all prisons, including the hospital, but also legal advice programs for people in psychiatric institutions or in shelters for people with intellectual disabilities.

The recommendation was that they should be provided by NGOs, with the state paying for the services.

With reference to the victims of domestic violence and gender-based violence, we suggested that those services be subsidized so that they could continue and operate throughout the country; information programs for children and prevention of delinquency – that they continue as they are, be financially covered as far as possible, and be digitized so that they are attractive to children, or the content should not only be attractive but also understood, and that technologies are involved as far as possible.

A short version of the study is also available in English, while the full study is only available in Romanian.