Laws on violence against women should facilitate free legal representation for victims. For example, the Rape Victims Assistance Act in the Philippines established rape crises centers which provide free legal aid. Guatemala’s Law against Femicide and other Forms of Violence against Women at Article 21 obliges the Government to provide free legal assistance to survivors.
Some laws also allow third parties, including NGOs, to pursue cases on behalf of victims. For example, the Sexual Offences Act in Kenya provides for a third party to bring a case where the complainant/survivor is unable to go to the court by herself. The Criminal Procedure Code in Honduras provides for the possibility of the complainant/survivor being represented by a duly established organization, such as a women’s rights organization. In fact, the Center for Women’s Rights in Honduras has acted on behalf of women complainants/survivors, in coordination with the public prosecutor in sexual violence cases.
CASE STUDY – Legal Aid in Macedonia
Through working closely with victims of violence, the Macedonian Women’s Rights Center recognized the need for free legal services and representation in court proceedings for women. In 2005, the group established its Free Legal Aid program. The program informs women about their rights and the various mechanisms by which they can claim them and provides legal advice and representation as well as assistance with document preparation. The program will represent women in criminal, civil, and administrative proceedings. Paramount in the provision of service is developing a relationship of trust and maintaining client confidentiality. The program found that most of its clients were unemployed, low-income, single parents, or others who had faced violence and were experiencing economic difficulty; many were seeking help with divorce and custody determinations. The program at Macedonian Women’s Rights Center has been successful in assisting women to gain custody and also win child support in civil cases, and often women are awarded indemnity in criminal cases as well. The group has also successfully assisted women to receive aid through the government’s Center for Social Welfare.
Legal services must be fully funded and adequately staffed. Legal services should be provided at no cost to the victim to ensure that proper legal investigations and processes can be carried out swiftly and effectively without being hindered by the economic status of the victim. Specifically, services should provide survivors with free legal aid in all court proceedings, free access to interpreters, and free translation of legal documents, when requested or required. See: Rowena Guanzon, Laws on Violence against Women in the Philippines (UN DAW Expert Paper, May 2008).
A program to provide court accompaniment is also an important component. Many NGOs provide court accompaniment services, which are different from but often just as important as legal representation. A lawyer will advocate for the client’s legal rights in court, but victims also may need a supportive person in the courtroom who is not their lawyer to monitor and advocate for the victim’s mental and emotional health during the proceedings.
CASE STUDY – Court Accompaniment in Austria
Amendments to Austria’s code of criminal procedure have enhanced protections for victims of violent acts, dangerous threats, or sexual offenses. The program arose out of a pilot project conducted with youth sexual assault victims and their families and is designed at providing psycho-social support and court accompaniment. Not only do protections extend to the victims but under the law victim support services also extend to family members of the victim if the services are directed at preserving the victim’s rights in court. The Federal Ministry of Social Security and Generations developed a program to train court accompaniment personnel and to monitor court accompaniment programs. Budgetary funding for court accompaniment reached a total of 4.5 million Euros in 2008. See: Amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code 2006, UN Secretary-General’s database on violence against women; Information for the Special Rapporteur on violence against women (Letter from the Austrian Mission in Geneva, Oct. 2005).
In order to effectively implement laws, it is essential that those laws be available in languages that victims, key stakeholders, and the general public can understand. It is important that translations address the difficult and complex task of converting complicated legal concepts and specialized terminology from one language into another. It is also important to have translation and interpretation services available throughout the entire legal process from law enforcement to prosecutors to the courts.