Reforming Legal Aid in Lithuania

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April 22, 2004

Lithuania is about to embark on comprehensive reform of its legal aid system, following successful experimenting in recent years with new public defender offices. The Lithuanian reforms were the subject of an international meeting in Vilnius on April 22, 2004, organized by the Lithuanian Ministry of Justice, the Parliamentary Committees on Legal Affairs and on Human Rights, and the Open Society Justice Initiative. The event was attended by members of Lithuania's parliament, the Minister of Justice, and experts—both government and nongovernmental—from other countries.

Lithuanian government participants were strongly supportive of reform proposals. Minister of Justice Vytautas Markevièius stated his department's determination to ensure "broader access to justice" for all. Aloyzas Sakalas, Chairman of the Lithuanian Parliamentary Committee on Legal Affairs, made a ringing call for reform: "We need to have immediate, targeted action... We still don't have a viable model in Lithuania [for the delivery of legal services to the poor]... I am very enthusiastic about this. We don't need to think any more. Parliament must act. Our people need legal aid."

Lithuania, which joined the European Union on May 1, 2004, introduced public defender offices for criminal legal aid in 2000, the first of the latest crop of European Union members to do so. Reforms began with the introduction of a new law on legal aid delivery in 2000. Although an improvement on paper, the law proved difficult to implement. Two trial public defender offices in Siauliai and Vilnius demonstrated that problems were systemic and that a more comprehensive overhaul was needed. In 2003, a working group was established to develop ideas to that end. The working group's concept paper, delivered in July 2003, was accepted by the government with some modifications in November. By the time of the April meeting, a draft law to implement the new system was being finalized.


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