Lithuanian Parliament Revamps Legal Aid
VILNIUS, Lithuania—Lithuania's parliament today adopted a law establishing a professional, nationwide system of legal aid delivery in criminal and civil cases. The new law follows a long reform process, spearheaded by Lithuania's Ministry of Justice and Bar Association, and supported by the Open Society Justice Initiative and the Open Society Fund-Lithuania.
The law creates a coordinating council and legal aid service centers under the Ministry of Justice, to manage and oversee legal aid delivery around the country. The new system simplifies eligibility criteria to receive legal representation and also provides for one hour's free legal advice for all.
The law introduces a corps of fulltime legal aid lawyers in five cities across the country to practice alongside private lawyers, currently the sole providers of aid services. The system until now, whereby all aid lawyers are appointed ex officio by the Bar Association, lacked transparency and accountability, and provided little incentive for lawyers to deliver real and effective defense in the interests of indigent defendants.
The law is the culmination of a multi-year reform effort that has aimed to improve access to justice for poorer members of society and builds on the success of two pilot public defender offices, established in the capital, Vilnius, and another city, Siauliai. Those offices, created in close consultation with the Justice Initiative, employed legal aid lawyers working in teams to ensure consistently effective and efficient legal defense in criminal cases.
Many details relating to new scheme remain to be specified in further regulations, including performance standards, payment mechanisms, and staff recruitment procedures. Nonetheless, the law, creating new legal aid management and delivery institutions, is an important step that places Lithuania in the forefront of legal aid reform in central and eastern Europe. Successful implementation will depend to a large extent on further efforts of the ministry, legal aid advocates, and cooperating attorneys in fine-tuning the system to bring it closer to the poor and strengthen its capacity to uphold human rights in practice.