The guest of this episode is Olesea Tabarcea, the Executive Director of the Balti Legal Clinic, which is one of the few specialized organizations outside Chisinau, also active in rural localities, where the need for legal services is most acute.
The Clinic has been operating for 20 years. Although initially it was created as an academic structure to support practical legal education of the students at the Law Faculty, over the years it has developed a vast activity of free legal aid provided to socially vulnerable people not only from Balti Municipality, but also from the entire northern region of the country consisting of about 13 districts. We would like to discuss with Olesea Tabarcea about the organization she leads, its priorities and challenges faced, current situation in the area of access to justice, the need for free legal services and their beneficiaries.
Cu DREPT-ul: What are the priorities of the organization? How did you manage to shape it over the past 20 years and to understand where its services are needed?
Olesea Tabarcea: The organization has several strategic directions of activity of utmost importance. These include the activity and practical work with young lawyers and students, and represents the access to justice not only in the court of law, but everything else before going to court, starting with legal counseling and legal, information guidance, awareness and information campaigns, and advocacy. Six years ago we adopted a new direction – our organization has been working with persons with intellectual disabilities.
Cu DREPT-ul: Do you have a fairly extensive range of activities and beneficiaries? Why is this necessary?
Olesea Tabarcea: It is actually about the rights and the realization of certain rights, whether it is the right to free legal aid, because legal aid is expensive, or whether it is a certain category of beneficiaries who either do not have enough information or there are no organizations in the northern region that would attract the attention of these beneficiaries.
The organization works mainly with legal aid and observance of social, political, civil rights of the most disadvantaged and vulnerable categories of people. We are present in the territory; we know what is happening there not by hearsay but we learn these things by interacting with people on a daily basis.
When we identify needs that are more often invoked, we cannot remain insensitive to this problem, so we try to solve it. I know this is called “fire extinguisher”, but I think this is also an essence of the organization – to be sensitive to some pressing issues and not just follow strictly a written or unwritten strategy. Although we have a clear strategy.
Cu DREPT-ul: How has the work of the organization been affected by the latest crises?
Olesea Tabarcea: As soon as the pandemic started, we tried to help the most vulnerable categories with various actions, including humanitarian aid, counseling and different information; we cannot be indifferent and insensitive to the current humanitarian crisis of the refugees and the war in Ukraine, because by solving some pressing local problems, we help first of all, the community to become more resilient. Issues should be resolved when they need to be resolved. We should not just draft strategies and await for their implementation. We are aware of the problem; we meet and discuss and we try to solve it; we don’t just try – we actually solve it and get involved.
Cu DREPT-ul: You mentioned several times that you work with the most vulnerable categories of people. Who are these people? Are they the same as the rest of the country?
Olesea Tabarcea: We have a law that lists and defines vulnerable categories and according to this law, these are the vulnerable persons or families who benefit from social services provided by social structures. But for us there are more vulnerable categories such as, for instance, single mothers because they have a legal range of problems, the elderly with another legal range of problems, and now, the refugees who became a problem for the country, but they are also very vulnerable, different communities, the Roma community, and persons with different disabilities. We have tried to take over, and I want to mention again this category, the people with intellectual disabilities, because it is one of the most vulnerable categories at the moment that has all the rights, but cannot exercise them.
Another vulnerable category in our opinion, but not covered by law, is the people who live in villages. Those who live in rural areas have a very limited access to different information, they have extremely limited access to different services, not to mention legal services, which are expensive.
It is a very good thing that there are paralegals. The network of paralegals is an absolutely wonderful thing, which facilitates our work as well, because before the network was set, we were the only ones in the northern region, who had this range of services, information and first legal aid.
Cu DREPT-ul: What is the situation related to access to justice in the region and how has it evolved in recent years?
Olesea Tabarcea: When the State Guaranteed Legal Aid Council was established, the rumors were that the pro-bono organizations would not have work. We both feared and enjoyed it, because at the end of the day, we would have achieved our main goal – solving legal issues of the population.
But we discovered that the demand for legal aid has increased, because first of all, the prices for services have increased, some conditions have changed.
And since the National Aid Council provides qualified legal aid based on certain terms, we remained at the stage of providing legal advice and primary legal aid and redirecting the clients to qualified assistance offered by the National Council. So, we have positioned ourselves as a stepping stone in the guaranteed legal aid, because we are a preliminary phase to a trial, court process or qualified assistance.
I would like to emphasize again: we did not identify a time period when the number of requests decreased. I will explain why. First of all, the increase in prices for assistance as I mentioned earlier, second – extremely frequent legislative changes, which involve informing the population, but very complex and targeted to different categories, so to speak, to different legislative terms or conditions, topics.
And we have established one thing – the more informed is the population, the more determined it becomes to defend its rights, to go to institutions, to come to us.
We assist them in writing different requests, petitions, claims and in conducting actions to defend their rights. Legal information of a person has already an impact, because if one has the information, one will know what has to be done.
We have a principle – the access to justice must be resolved or must take place before going to court.
This is the ideal option, and hence, we have the mission to inform the people to make use of different resources or legal information sources, such as the Legal Clinic and other organizations that provide this service free of charge to the population, so that the court procedure is avoided, because the courts are also extremely busy; they have an extremely large flow of people, but there are solutions before going to court, although, not always.
Cu DREPT-ul: From a practical point of view, how are the people affected by limited or unequal access to justice in regions? Do you go to villages? Do you learn about the state of affairs from the first source?
Practically speaking, the person either gives up or does not even start with the case resolution, because first – the person has no financial resources, two – the person has no information, three – the person has no desire because of the first two.
Olesea Tabarcea: People do not even start because they do not know how nor they have the opportunity. That is why, the more focused, so to speak, the legal aid services or opportunities are – the more active people become, because people know that there is someone who can guide and help them, especially if these are free or partially free services. It is difficult to speak about equality or inequality, about a balance of assistance and opportunities. There is no uniformity.
The organization conducted recently two studies on access to justice: a survey on access to justice of people from rural regions, in 5 districts more exactly, to understand what is the actual difference in accessing services or whether this is an equal opportunity in different regions.
The difference is huge. We cannot speak about uniformity and thus, different regions become more vulnerable in terms of access to justice.
Cu DREPT-ul: What other conclusions, issues were discovered by the study on access to justice?
Olesea Tabarcea: The biggest surprise of the study conducted within the National Campaign for a Healthy Justice was the fact that a vast majority of people was keen to tell us that they wanted a feedback mechanism on negative outcome or interaction with legal specialists or institutions. When interacting with the justice system or legal aid, people need a mechanism to complain if the interaction was not good, provided that the complaint is addressed and resolved.
Out of the number of people who told us that they had filed a complaint, 13% of those interviewed, and we are talking about 500 people, not even half of them received any answer or resolution. People want to complain on their own, but there should be an easy and handy instrument.
Another finding of our study was that people do not know where to seek primary legal aid, in simple words – a consultation, because many of the interviewees said that they sought legal advise from either a paralegal or a NGO from those 5 districts.
None of the interviewees said they received primary legal aid from a lawyer. Lawyers, according to our study, provide only qualified legal aid. This is where we ask the question: hence, the activity of primary legal aid must be organized in a way to be clear to people – who gives this advice, where the person can apply for advice, because people do not always understand what primary legal aid means.
The biggest conclusion after conducting these two studies on access to justice of disadvantaged people in the north of the Republic of Moldova was that things can change only when there is an inter-institutional communication and a dialogue and when there are some people-oriented services.
Cu DREPT-ul: In the Study “Best practices in facilitating access to justice in Moldova” conducted recently within the Access to Justice in Moldova Project, where you were also a part, the mobile team of the Legal Clinic is also described as an example of best practice. How important is this service to the organization and the beneficiaries?
Olesea Tabarcea: From the pandemic crisis we have entered into the humanitarian crisis that is generating an economic crisis, and the economic crisis means lack of money and resources and is a very big social problem, in general. The mobile team or the mobile Legal Aid Service as we call it, covers this problem, because people use the legal service at their place of residence. With the help of the mobile team we tackle several issues, such as lack of financial resources: the person does not have to travel, the service is delivered at home. Practically, the person does not make any extra effort to search for this service, to travel to another locality to solve the legal issue. In addition, after the mobile team communicates with the beneficiary, we provide feedback afterwards, either during a repeated mobile visit or as a communication through all available resources: internet, online, even letters. We still write and send an official legal reply in the form of an official letter to those who ask for it.
I have to admit that the mobile team is more expensive for the organization because it requires extra expenses. The mobile team, consisting usually of 5 people, travels to villages. People know that on Friday, on date X, the lawyer comes to the village. Can you imagine? You are at home in the village and you know that every Friday, like the doctor who comes once a week, a team of lawyers comes to your village and answers any questions. You can get informed and get a qualified consultation from specialists and solve your problem free of charge.
We have understood that this model of legal aid or mobile services is one of the most effective in crises, when people can not afford it, when people can not afford to pay bills, they do not even think about legal aid anymore.
In crises, people with problems usually delay and do not initiate the resolution processes, which is why the mobile team is absolutely unique in such situations – it renders services at the place of living. We have the same situation now with legal counseling and psychological services rendered to refugees. That is why the mobile teams make an immediate impact. We talk about an immediate impact.
Cu DREPT-ul: How big is the demand for the mobile team services?
Olesea Tabarcea: We cannot respond to all requests, I am very honest, because it involves many costs.
Cu DREPT-ul: What should happen so the things and the situation can change for the better?
Olesea Tabarcea: The first thing is the dialogue. The institutions in the justice system, in the field of access to justice, legal aid and non-commercial organizations or all stakeholders involved somehow have to initiate a dialogue, because together we can bring clarity in the field of legal aid and in solving problems that might not even be problems, if there was this dialogue.
Secondly, according to our two studies, we have understood that we need to expand a very useful instrument such as videoconferencing in the justice system, because being in a pandemic or a crisis, videoconferencing would be cheaper and faster but also an effective instrument to solve many issues.
We want to pilot and use the videoconferencing widely in all cases, not only in criminal or contravention cases, but also in civil cases in courts, then many things would be solved in terms of access to justice and the resolution of some cases. Also, we are waiting for the time when the network of paralegals will cover more villages in the Republic of Moldova, because the best way in enjoying the right or facilitating access to justice is to have a resource in each locality. I understand that this is an ideal situation or it is an idealization of the situation, but it is possible. The State has this capacity, we only need motivated people willing to embrace the profession of paralegal.
This text is an excerpt from the CuDREPTul podcast. The full version, audio and text, exists only in Romanian.