A.S.,* a middle-aged housewife and mother of two in Montenegro, was divorced and on her own. For three years, she received no support from her ex-husband and lacked the means to raise her children. But through a new legal aid program Montenegro rolled out in 2011, she was able to access legal aid, and sue for and eventually obtain the alimony she was due.
She was just one of 97 cases served in 2012 by a legal aid office in the city of Podgorica, one of three pilot projects launched by UNDP as the result of an initiative to make legal counseling affordable and widely available.
In Montenegro, the cost of filing a lawsuit is so prohibitive, pursuing justice without assistance is nearly impossible for the average person. The situation is even more precarious for women victims of domestic violence, who may be afraid of revenge from the perpetrator or be unready to discuss and re-live their experience in front of a court of law.
“In an aspiring democracy, justice is not a matter of what people can afford or discretion,” says Jelena Đonović Vukotić, UNDP’s manager of its Montenegro Rule of Law and Human Rights Programme. “It is a matter of right.”
Today, the legal aid services provided for by the new law are present in all of Montenegro’s district courts. The majority of cases where free legal aid is provided are civil litigations, including divorce, child custody, alimony and paternity determination. Inheritance and property-related lawsuits are common as well. In addition to being poor, the majority of legal aid recipients are women and from urban areas.
There are also a number of affordable alternatives to seeking legal aid, including the UNDP-supported Centre for Mediation and the Agency for Peaceful Work-related Conflict Resolution.
However, in cases where the plaintiff needs to go to court, legal aid remains the only free option.
Despite a fervent public awareness campaign, many prospective legal aid beneficiaries are still not aware of their options under the new law. As a result, UNDP has started working closely with Montenegro’s non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to broaden outreach efforts so they can reach a greater number of people in need of free legal assistance. This partnership also monitors the frequency and efficacy of these new services.
The initiative was supported by the Governments of The Netherlands and Norway. Other partners have included Montenegro’s Ministry of Justice, the Judiciary and the Bar Association of Montenegro, the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, the Open Society Foundation and the Council of Europe, as well as several municipal governments and NGOs.
*The plaintiff’s initials are used to protect her identity and in respect of family law in Montenegro