On interpreting statistics

According to the Minister of Justice, the number of low income Ukrainians needing free legal aid has decreased. And not just a little … The Minister believes that in comparison with 2005, the number of such citizens in 2007 has decreased by at least one third.  

The reason for this somewhat startling conclusion is to be found in the Ministry’s reporting on State-funded legal assistance in criminal cases.

The Minister explains this “achievement” as follows:

In recent years the State Budget has annually allocated 1960.9 thousand UAH for legal aid in criminal proceedings.

Now whereas in 2005 the Ministry actually paid out 2337 thousand UAH in 1927 criminal cases, in 2006 – 163,7 thousand UAH in 1,591 criminal cases, in the first half of 2007, lawyers presented bills to be paid amounting to 48,6 thousand UAH in 512 criminal cases.

The Minister stated that these statistics were a fairly objective indicator since money is paid out according to lawyers’ bills.

Only what does the indicator indicate?

Nobody is disputing the statistics, only the quantum leap made in determining a radical change in the number of people who need legal aid.

The situation with legal aid in Ukraine is, in fact, highly unsatisfactory.  The Constitution clearly states that “Everyone has the right to legal assistance. Such assistance is provided free of charge in cases envisaged by law” (Article 59).  At present, however, State funding is only allocated for legal aid in criminal proceedings.

The amounts allocated are far from adequate, and yet in most regions they are not spent in full.  This is not the paradox it may seem.  A lawyer working for a full day providing such legal aid earns the princely sum of 15 UAH (around 3 USD).  Not only is this amount less than reasonable remuneration, but the lawyer needs to spend a considerable amount of time, paper and nerves to extract his or her honest earnings.  This may explain why the number of lawyers rearing to offer their services in some areas leads to money available and not spent.

It unfortunately also probably explains why the quality of legal aid is not always as could be wished. One need not necessarily criticize mercenary lawyers – they may simply be forced to deal with too many cases to themselves make ends meet.

The Minister of Justice would be well advised to view the work of the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group’s Legal Aid Centre for Victims of Ill-treatment or the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union’s Legal Assistance Fund for Victims of Human Rights Abuse.  While these are more specific in their focus, the human rights groups have found no reason to believe that the need in society for free legal aid has diminished.


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