My passion towards legal aid is very much connected to my childhood. Growing up in a Palestinian refugee camp, with little opportunities and great poverty, I saw many families in need of someone to defend and claim their rights. I would always tell myself: “When I grow up, I will become a lawyer to help those in need”. This is why I started studying law. – Elham Aboulibdeh, Lawyer.
In Jordan, economic opportunity still shapes men and women’s right to equal access to justice. Jordanian law grants the right to free legal assistance only to those facing a sentence of ten or more years of imprisonment. While courts are open to all, the difficulty of navigating the justice system often discourages individuals from undertaking the journey on their own. This deficient legal aid system leaves uncovered not only criminal cases punishable by lighter sentences (if we consider nine years imprisonment a light sentence), but also more common matters related to civil and family law that may bear critical consequences to anyone’s life. And as opportunity often works, it is not the wealthy who are significantly affected from this imbalance, but the wider segment of low-income men, women and children: for those unable to afford a lawyer, legal issues such as claiming alimony, obtaining custody rights, claiming unpaid wages or settling tenancy disputes are often likely to end in injustice.
The Justice Center for Legal Aid (JCLA) was established in 2008 to combat the injustice affecting the poor and vulnerable. By offering free legal services to all those unable to afford a lawyer, JCLA seeks to be the bridge for victims to become survivors, for oppressed to become right-claimers, providing opportunity to those who lack it, in the effort to promote legal empowerment, enhance access to justice and uphold the principle of equality before the law.
Legal aid promotes a culture of trust in the justice system, by reminding all individuals who cannot afford a lawyer that they have the right to equal access to justice. – Suhad Sukkari, Advocacy Unit Director
Set out on good intentions and starting from the grassroots, the quest for equal access to justice has proven to be a long and perilous journey.
It started by contracting lawyers willing to provide legal aid. From one legal aid clinic in the capital, JCLA expanded its Legal Aid Unit, positioning its clinics within the premises of its partners located across the country. This allowed those fearing the stigma related to approaching a lawyer to access legal aid at their local NGO, whose primary work was not related to legal aid at all. Local partners soon began not only to host JCLA’s clinics, but to refer cases, contributing to creating change through their engagement. Since 2008, JCLA has provided approximately 40,000 legal consultations and 20,000 in-court representations, assisting women, children and men of different nationalities to access the justice system.
However, providing legal consultations and representations was not enough. Soon, JCLA realized that a large segment of its beneficiaries encountered legal issues because they lacked the necessary knowledge of the law – both concerning crime prevention and right-claiming. Ignorance of the law and concerns of high legal fees often scare away those in need to resort to the formal justice system. This causes them to either fall deeper into their legal crisis or resort to negative coping mechanisms, often remaining outside the legal system, never knowing what it may offer and how to benefit from it. For this reason, JCLA built its Awareness Unit, whose primary focus is to disseminate information on legal topics and where to seek help when needed. Through its now extensive network, JCLA capitalized on its partners’ outreach to identify at-risk groups in the community and provide them with legal awareness on topics deemed relevant by the targeted population. By educating the general public, JCLA fosters an environment where individuals can anticipate legal issues and learn how to deal with them in a timely manner. Since 2008, JCLA has delivered over 10,000 awareness activities to disseminate legal information, reaching more than 280,000 community members.
Notwithstanding its increasing efforts at nationwide level, JCLA soon came to terms with the fact that the demand for legal services greatly surpassed its supply availability. One last piece of the puzzle was missing: fostering synergies with government actors, so that the provision of legal aid would become institutionalized. JCLA’s Advocacy Unit was created with the primary goal to ensure the establishment of a national legal aid system, but it soon grew to offer much more than that. The Advocacy Unit works closely with several government stakeholders to enhance the legal system overall, in its legislation and practices. It provides recommendations on new draft laws, advocates for legal amendments, and works with government bodies to increase their capacity. While a comprehensive national legal aid system is yet to be achieved, JCLA has contributed to long strides in the justice system, actively engaging with government stakeholders to create positive change.
Today, JCLA has evolved, integrating more figures and services for those in need of legal aid. Community Facilitators assist lawyers in legal clinics through paralegal work, making legal jargon and procedures more accessible for beneficiaries. They provide accompaniment and mediation and refer cases to other services providers when needed, following a holistic beneficiary-centered approach. Further, in 2018 JCLA established a detention hotline with lawyers available 24/7 for arrested people at the pretrial stage, assisting over 900 people. In late 2020, JCLA launched a protection hotline for victims of violence and abuse. Community facilitators are in charge of the hotlines, providing support and guidance over the phone, and contacting lawyers when the case requires immediate action. Finally, JCLA adapted its service provision to the Covid-19 context, by offering online services to its beneficiaries.
Strong of its grassroots experience, JCLA accompanies its beneficiaries through their legal journey, turning the law from a barrier into an instrument for the poor to exercise their rights. By promoting legal empowerment and enhancing access to justice, JCLA is a catalyst for change towards the achievement of a system where the opportunity to claim justice is equal for all.