February 7, 2018
Belgian lawyers are protesting this Wednesday 7th February against the 2016 reform of the national legal aid system, which they say makes it more difficult for people to obtain free legal assistance.
The protests are held before the Brussels seat of the Constitutional Court, which is currently reviewing a constitutional challenge brought by Plateforme Justice pour Tous (Platform Justice for Everyone), a coalition of civil society organisations. The group are being represented by lawyer Marie Doutrepont.
The claimants are invoking article 23 of the Belgian Constitution, which protects the right to human dignity.
“According to the Constitution, human dignity implies the right to legal assistance” said Doutrepont, who added that “the reform also violates article 6 of the European Convention on Human Rights, which is the right to a fair trial”.
The reform introduced an administrative fee starting at 50€ (20€ for the designation of the legal aid lawyer and 30€ for the first procedure) for any individual requesting legal aid, including those who qualify for state-provided legal assistance. The fee increases by 30€ for any appeal procedure.
“In theory, one could ask to be exempted from this fee” said Doutrepont “but in practice the procedure is cumbersome and lengthy”.
The 2016 bill also modified the criteria for granting legal aid, making it more difficult to prove one’s own needs and justify their own conditions. For instance, “a homeless person who is being hosted by a friend” said Doutrepont “will need to prove that this arrangement is only temporary and does not have an impact on their resources”.
Compensation for the work of legal aid lawyers is also problematic.