LegalHub: «We didn’t seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come»

Survivors
Коллаж: Алиса Гончар / Collage by Alisa Hanchar

As a result of the 2021 crackdowns in Belarus, many non-profit projects providing free legal consultations were shut down. The country faced a severe shortage of legal aid. The LegalHub platform emerged in response to the sharply increased need among citizens and united lawyers, attorneys, and human rights activists who provide free consultations to Belarusians on Belarusian and some aspects of foreign legislation. Reform.news spoke with a representative of the platform to find out where the law still works and why it is so important to protect one’s rights. The interviewee’s name has been changed for the safety of the participants and clients of the initiative.

LegalHub is an online service providing free legal assistance to Belarusian citizens in Belarus and abroad. The platform was launched on October 15, 2021, and has answered over 11,000 requests since its inception. Consultations are provided in over 60 specializations. According to statistics for 2023, Belarusians most often sought answers to the following questions: criminal and administrative prosecution, housing issues and disputes, military conscription, emigration from Belarus, labor relations, and student rights.

«Stop asking on the internet, on the bench, in the clinic, and come to lawyers for help when needed»

The creators of the LegalHub platform are concerned about the safety of users: to receive a consultation, it is not necessary to provide personal information – it is enough to simply register on the platform, entering a login and password. Alexandra explains:

— Anonymity helps people describe situations as they are, without embellishing or distorting the situation.

LegalHub sets itself many goals, one of which is to teach Belarusians to use legal aid: not to be afraid to ask questions and receive qualified advice from a specialist.

— Stop asking on the internet, on the bench, in the clinic, and come to lawyers for help when needed. With this mission, we move towards a bright future.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

Another goal of LegalHub is to teach lawyers to provide free legal assistance. In the world, this practice is called «pro bono,» and it is aimed at helping those who cannot afford expensive legal services on their own.

— We tried to combine these two tasks, and as it seems to me, we are succeeding.

LegalHub provides the opportunity to contact lawyers on a wide range of issues. The creators have studied what Belarusians most often ask lawyers about and have grouped topics by specialization. Each is named in clear language so that any user can easily understand which category his question belongs to. If the client does not understand, there is a duty operator on the website who will help determine the required category.

— It is important to note that LegalHub does not consult on business issues, entrepreneurial activities, and tax payments. In addition, the platform does not consider unethical questions. For example, if a person asks how not to pay alimony to his ex-wife. Such requests also occur.

The platform has a separate organization called «Reference», which advises women on a specialized list of issues. Thus, LegalHub strives to create a platform where Belarusian men and women can ask about everything. This year, new initiatives are planned to join the platform, says Alexandra.

The LFinder project, which is also part of the platform, helps find a lawyer for a specific request. There is currently a catastrophic shortage of specialists in Belarus: about 1,500 lawyers for 9 million people.

— The need for such a service is related to the fact that people often do not know where to turn and how to choose a quality lawyer, what they can ask him about, and how to build relationships with him.

Separately, platform lawyers have prepared LegalKit – a collection of algorithms and memos on typical legal situations, for example, when people need to evict those registered in the apartment before selling it. Currently, there are nine such topics in the «LegalPharmacy»: you can familiarize yourself with the information and go directly to a lawyer to clarify the issue.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

According to Alexandra, free legal consultation is a completely normal practice worldwide. Many countries have special legislation for providing primary legal aid and finance it. Also, lawyers and attorneys voluntarily and free of charge advise people in their spare time.

— All the largest legal and law firms in the world are proud to practice pro bono. There are special departments that provide free legal assistance.

Alexandra notes that such practices are not provided for in Belarusian legislation. Sometimes there are free phone lines and consultation days where citizens can turn for such assistance. However, such consultations are irregular and cover only certain parts of the law.

— It is often mentioned that in Belarus, you can get free legal assistance in criminal cases, but it is important to understand that money will be collected from the person who receives a guilty verdict later. Therefore, this assistance cannot be called free.

According to Alexandra, in Belarus, 99.91% of guilty verdicts are issued in criminal cases. If a person is accused of committing a crime, they are guaranteed to be found guilty. To many, the institution of advocacy may seem pointless — why do we need lawyers if the outcome is known in advance? The lawyer explains:

— It is important to understand that thanks to the work of a lawyer, in the same criminal cases, the term and severity of the punishment may be less than initially requested by the prosecution.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

Alexandra is 100% sure that a lawyer is necessary. Moreover, a lawyer provides significant psychological support. No one else can come and support the detained person except for the lawyer.

— Yes, in Belarus, there is a huge bias in favor of the state in criminal and economic cases. However, if you remove the lawyer, the legal process turns into a meat grinder with human lives. Even now, with all that we see and know, a lawyer is a big ray of light. It’s no coincidence that journalists and lawyers are the two categories that are most persecuted in Belarus.

Lawyers and journalists are the two most persecuted professions worldwide, especially in authoritarian countries where human rights are violated, notes Alexandra. When journalists loudly declare abuse of power, lawyers on the ground prevent authorities from openly breaking the law.

— In a situation where ‘laws are sometimes ignored’, authorities want to solve issues from a position of power but hide behind legal constructs. And if there is a lawyer on the other side, it turns out that it is not very easy to do.

Many lawyers resist the unlawful actions of law enforcement agencies. Therefore, the legal profession is a super-annoying link that endlessly prevents the violation of the law, says Alexandra.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Правозащитник Алесь Беляцкий. Фото: Алиса Гончар / Human rights activist Ales Bialiatski. Photo by Alisa Hanchar

«The number of inquiries is a direct result of the severe shortage of legal assistance in Belarus»

According to Alexandra, the peculiarities of the Belarusian legal field affect the price of legal services. The ability to turn to a lawyer is significantly limited. For example, in Georgia, there is one lawyer for every 800 people, in Ukraine – for every 1,000 people, in Russia – for every 2,000 people. In Belarus, however, one lawyer serves 6,000 people. It is extremely difficult to get an appointment with a qualified specialist.

— Since there are currently 1,500 lawyers for 9 million citizens in Belarus, simple mathematical calculation shows that a lawyer has 20 minutes of working time per person per year. In addition, Belarusian lawyers face significant risks of being detained, especially when dealing with political cases.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

Comparing the price tag of legal services worldwide, the cost in Belarus is not high but still significant for the average Belarusian, says Alexandra.

— I am extremely pleased that people continue to work. I hope that in the future, we will have the opportunity to create legislation where the possibility of obtaining free consultations will be prescribed. I really hope that we will be able to create anew or revive the non-profit sector to provide free legal assistance.

Alexandra emphasizes that 85% of all requests on the platform come from Belarus. Of these, 40% are from Minsk, and 60% are from the regions. While it is still possible to get legal assistance in Minsk, it is more challenging in the regions.

— We have a highly automated platform, 90% of users are satisfied with the service, and 20% leave feedback. Some people send their thanks in private messages, and this is a great motivator.

LegalHub provides between 700 and 1,000 consultations per month. There was a significant increase in 2023: in 2022, the platform provided 150-300 consultations.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Данные LegalHub по количеству запросов за 2022-2023 год

— The number of inquiries is a direct result of the severe shortage of legal assistance in Belarus. On the other hand, it indicates that people want to solve their problems independently, rather than sitting idle. In my opinion, the moment has come when it becomes increasingly difficult to agree. A position of agreement leads to more problems. Human responsibility for one’s own fate is growing.

LegalHub also does a lot of work to inform people about its activities. Additionally, there is a «word of mouth» effect — when a client is satisfied, they will share their experience with others.

— For the organization, it was a planned growth. Overall, we are coping and very much want people to continue coming to us for help.

In 2023, LegalHub transformed its activities from quick and urgent legal assistance to a format where the organization is always available.

— This year, we plan to prepare more informational materials for LegalKit: cheat sheets, action algorithms, short answers to questions. We want people to find answers on their own more often without asking lawyers from the platform. We plan to collaborate with other organizations. We really want other consulting initiatives to join us to help a large number of people in one place.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

Alexandra notes that from the news, we often see how challenging it is to defend administrative and criminal cases. However, in Belarus, there are still areas of law where the legal system functions relatively effectively.

— There are a huge number of problems that people face every day. I wouldn’t say categorically that the law always works, but in general, we prepare complaints, lawsuits, and documents, and usually manage to solve problems in most cases.

Illegal dismissals have always existed, continues Alexandra, and the platform helps appeal such decisions. In such cases, an appeal is made to the supervisory authorities. Based on LegalHub’s practice, it is incorrect to claim that a person has no opportunity to defend their rights. There are many cases where the applicant successfully defends their rights.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

— All the problems of the Belarusian legal system are related to the fact that for a long time, we did not seek legal assistance to defend our rights. I think that moment has come. Now it is important to defend our rights, and for this, we have our platform.

For example, if a citizen does not want their child to eat in the school cafeteria, according to the law, there is an opportunity to refuse.

— Then we can: a) pay money to the school management and not get involved, or b) stand firm in our position and defend our point of view despite persuasion and threats. Such small victories remove the position of agreement and assert their rights.

In the legal context, this means that there is a process of transition from the role of being regulated to the role of being a subject, explains Alexandra. That is, a citizen pays closer attention to their rights and interests, sees the result of their actions, and believes in their abilities.

LegalHub: "We didn't seek legal assistance for a long time ourselves. That moment has come"
Фото: Алиса Гончар / Photo by Alisa Hanchar

— An independent judicial system is very important and difficult. It intertwines such a huge number of principles and values ​​that need to be preserved for the system to work objectively and not tip the balance in the other direction. In a state where everything is decided by force, an independent judicial system is not needed.

In Alexandra’s opinion, it is in the interests of the authorities to observe the laws because it contributes to maintaining stability and legitimacy in the eyes of society. Adhering to the laws allows for building trust among the population towards the authorities and creating the basis for fair and effective governance of the country.

— An independent judicial system can be created where there is a demand from society. I think that in recent years, this demand has been manifested. People see how it works in other countries, especially now when many Belarusians have left. I often hear stories like, ‘You know, I wrote a letter, got a response, and all the issues were resolved!’ That’s how it should be. I am sure that we will definitely come to an independent judicial system. The main thing is for people to learn to ask and defend their interests. This will be the engine for the other side to start answering. First, answer questions, and then answer for what they do.

Text: Herman Zabaronak. Photo: Alisa Hanchar

The special project «Survivors» documents the state of Belarusian civil society organizations (CSOs) in the year 2024.

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