By Anita Nirody, UNDP Resident Representative
This week, I visited Abshway district in the Fayoum Governorate for the launch of the Legal Aid Office in the Abshway Family court. My visit was within the context of a project that the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Egypt is implementing with the Ministry of Justice.
UNDP Egypt has been collaborating with the Ministry of Justice since 2008 in establishing and building the capacity of Legal Aid Offices in family courts, to provide free legal advice and services that help poor and illiterate citizens, mostly women who need assistance with resolving cases related to payment of alimony, visitation rights, child custody etc. The project also helps strengthen the mediation functions of the Dispute Settlement offices.
The Legal Aid Office in the Abshway Family Court opened only a few months ago. During my visit, the office was bustling with activity and I met several litigants (most of them poor women), who were there for legal advice and help. The staff serving these women were friendly, helpful and empathetic to the needs of women. I spoke to one woman, a mother of seven children, who lives on a meagre pension and asked her why she was there. She said that she had come to seek advice on land inheritance. She said the services provided were efficient as it was all under one roof and would help her in getting important quality counselling and advice for free.
Another women told me: “My name was misspelled in the marriage certificate. I tried to change it for years without success. I knew that the legal aid office is fast and help me get my rights easily. And, it is all for free…honestly, I have no income to pay for lawyers and expensive processes…This is why I came here.”
My visit to the Abshway Family Court coincided with the International Women’s Day. In her statement on the occasion of International Women’s Day, UNDP Administrator Helen Clark said: “By promoting gender equality and empowering women as agents of change and leaders in the development processes which shape their lives, UNDP envisages a more inclusive, sustainable, and resilient world.“
In Egypt, almost one million family cases are examined by family courts each judicial year with 80% of these filed by women. Therefore, the strategic importance of setting up Legal Aid Offices and providing support to Dispute Settlement Offices is to enhance the quality of access to justice by litigants in family courts, especially women. “Legal aid offices are indeed about legal empowerment for women to access their legal rights”, stressed Counsellor Gihan El-Batouty, Project Manager.
Since the project began in 2008, 32 legal aid offices in 20 governorates were established out of a total of 55, and addressed 45,674 cases, out of which 74% were related to women.
Support to the Legal Aid Offices is just one element of the project, which also includes training of staff, roundtables for family court judges, sharing of experience from other countries and assistance with digitising and automating records in the family court system that will increase efficiency and transparency in the dispensation of justice. This is very much the focus of the new phase of the project that began in 2014 with support from the Government of Sweden.
Reaching out to citizens about these services is essential. Most litigants I spoke to had heard about the services provided by the Legal Aid Office in Abshway through word of mouth. The President of Fayoum Primary Court showed me several impressive outreach materials that had been prepared on the sorts of cases and services that the Abshway Legal Aid Office provides. The project is now working on an outreach campaign to reach as many citizens as possible.
Providing access to justice, especially for the poor is at the heart of UNDP’s work. We look forward to continuing our partnership with the Ministry of Justice on this project, which has provided essential legal services quickly and efficiently to those most in need. I came back from this experience knowing that we can make a visible and positive contribution to improving people’s lives.