State-funded legal support to be made more broadly available
State-funded legal support is available in Estonia, but to be eligible to receive it, one either needs to live below or just above the poverty line. Yet legal services are very expensive, which leaves a large part of the population without the possibility to pay for them when needed.
The Ministry of Justice found that while those people had no problem in everyday life, as they were able to afford food, housing, transport, clothes, and medical supplies, their income suddenly wasn’t enough anymore if they needed legal help of decent quality.
Though it wasn’t possible to get to an exact number of people in this situation, the ministry said it estimated there to be towards 100,000.
A set number of hours of free legal help
It’s the ministry’s aim to improve the availability of qualified legal help. To this end, the legal service the state offers will be expanded, and first-degree legal help made available for free for a set number of hours (two hours, for example).
Whoever still needs help will then be granted a set number of hours at a reduced rate (e.g. €30), or get the chance to apply for further state-funded help if they can’t afford the reduced rate.
The ministry sees no other way of expanding services, as taking far-reaching steps would mean interfering with the work and business of professional lawyers, for example if the state demanded of law firms to offer cheaper services to a certain group of people.
A special law firm for legal support cases
The number of hours as well as prices haven’t been set, as the bill is currently being put together and consultation rounds still ongoing. The bill is expected to be ready in July this year, and to enter into force in early 2017.
The bill will regulate how the planned extension of legal services is financed. It also aims to make sure that an applicant will receive initial legal help as well as further help from one and the same lawyer or law firm.
The current plan includes giving the Estonian Bar Association the right to create a law firm especially for this purpose. This office would then become a structural unit of the bar association.
Other changes include disposing of obligatory defending counsel in less severe cases that can be dealt with in summary proceedings. Currently Estonian law prescribes that a defending counsel needs to be made available starting from the point the prosecutor first informs about a criminal investigation.