The Estonian Bar Association finds that state legal aid is underfunded and the entire system could collapse as lawyers are turning down public legal aid contracts. The Ministry of Justice says it is trying to find funding but refrains from mentioning sums.
The Supreme Court found in its judgment from Monday that state legal aid might not be sustainable at the current fee rates. Imbi Jürgen, chair of the Estonian Bar Association, told "Aktuaalne kaamera" news that a number of lawyers left the public legal aid system in September and that it is on the verge of collapse.
Jürgen suggested that Estonia is trying to procure legal aid three times under the market price.
"For some reason, the government believes that it can buy a lawyer's services for three times less than the market price. No one thinks we could pay three times less at construction tenders, while it is held to be normal in state legal aid," she said.
Ministry of Finance undersecretary Viljar Peep said that the ministry is trying to secure funds to solve the problem. He said that the free rates have remained unchanged since 2019, with the minimum hourly fee of a public defender €54.
"The fee rate is laid down by the justice minister. We depend on what the state budget prescribes. We are looking for possibilities but cannot discuss potential sums that could be used to hike the fees in 2023," Peep said.
The deputy secretary general added that upping public defenders' hourly rates is the short-term solution. The ministry's longer plan is to form a new structure where lawyers are employed to offer state legal aid.
"We have no system of state-employed defenders today and plan to introduce the concept next year. It needs to be decided whether we want a new institution, attach the structure to an existing one, as well as how something like that would work in Estonia," Peep explained.
"The bar association is not adamant on being in charge of this [new] structure. But the government will have to come up with a model. The justice ministry will need to find a solution," Imbi Jürgen said.
Editor: Marcus Turovski
Source: "Aktuaalne kaamera"