The Latvian state ensured legal aid system is one of the youngest legal aid systems in Europe. It was only on June 1, 2005 that the State Ensured Legal Aid Law came into force. Its main goal is to promote the right of a natural person to a fair court protection by ensuring state-guaranteed financial support for the receipt of legal aid in civil and administrative disputes. To guarantee the successful provision of state ensured legal aid in civil and administrative cases, on January 1, 2006 a specific institution subordinated to the Ministry of Justice – Legal Aid Administration – was established.
The correct/appropriate characterisation of the Latvian legal aid system is that it is “a work in progress”. In the past couple of years, the system has continued to develop and has gone through some positive changes. To illustrate that, I would like to reflect on some of the recent developments in the Latvian legal aid system:
1. The scope of the state ensured legal aid has been extended to difficult administrative cases in court. Research showed that despite the principle of objective examination in administrative procedure, which provides certain protection for persons in administrative cases, a large part of the administrative cases for persons are more difficult than civil cases, where/for which state ensured legal aid can be granted.
2. Taking into account the European Union adopted laws and regulations in the field of asylum, as well as that this field right now is in the global spotlight, Latvia has significantly strengthened the rights of asylum-seekers when it comes to free legal aid, by making the free legal aid procedure more simple, practical and accessible.
3. Important amendments to the Civil Procedure Law and State ensured legal aid law regarding the court costs (including the state fee, office fees and other costs related to the court) were made. The main aim of the amendments –is to ensure that a person who has been granted state ensured legal aid is exempted from the obligation to pay any court costs. Therefore, Latvia has taken important steps to ensure that every person who receives state ensured legal aid does not have any obstacles when it comes to his rights to access to court and access to justice.
4. Changes were made in the state ensured legal aid cost recovery mechanism. In the Civil Procedure Law it is laid down that the losing party in court has to reimburse legal aid costs to the winning party, so the aim was to make sure that if the losing party is a person who has received state ensured legal aid, the legal aid costs of the opposite parties are covered by the state, by the state ensured legal aid budget. Therefore, essentially in state ensure legal aid cases the party that receives state ensured legal aid does not bear any risks and the state has to pay the costs of the winning party in case the state ensure legal aid party loses his/her case. The costs the losing party has to reimburse are determined by court and included in the final judgment of the court. Of course it might be said that such regulations could stimulate persons who are eligible to receive state ensured legal aid to go to court also when they don't have a 'strong' case, but that's why the competent authority making the decision has a mechanism in place to check if there is grounds to go to court in the specific case (the person has to provide evidence). If the competent authority can't determine that, then legal aid providers (lawyers) in some cases, when preliminary legal aid in the form of consultation is granted, can be asked for an opinion, which then can be used as basis to make a decision about the further state ensured legal aid.
5. Fees were raised for the state ensured legal aid providers. We have already had active discussions in Latvia for couple years about the adequate amount of remuneration for the lawyers who provide state ensured legal aid. Of course, one can’t say that an adequate level of remuneration has been reached, but at least there has been a positive development (has happened), and that is very important if developments for further state ensured legal aid quality assurance system have been planned.
6. Further developments of the state ensured legal aid quality assurance system have continued in many ways, including:
▪ specialisation of legal aid providers;
▪ monitoring of legal aid cases;
▪ cooperation with the Bar Association;
▪ mandatory further education for legal aid providers;
▪ client satisfaction surveys;
▪ detailed evaluation/audit of the signed legal aid contract;
▪ seminars for legal aid providers and social workers; and
▪ cooperation with courts
The procedures by which the state ensured legal aid is granted in civil and administrative disputes, do not apply to the provision of state ensured legal aid in criminal proceedings.
A state-ensured lawyer for the representation of a person and for the defence of a person in criminal proceedings is invited in the cases and according to the procedures specified in the Criminal Procedure Law. There are no restrictions regarding the volume of state ensured legal assistance in criminal cases.