For those who are poor or illiterate, understanding and using legal services is often difficult and preventative from obtaining justice. Since 2008, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) has worked with the Ministry of Justice to provide free legal aid in Egypt for the impoverished and illiterate, establishing 35 Legal Aid Offices as of 2016.
Free Legal Aid in Egypt
This project focuses on disputes in family courts and handles cases that do not require an attorney. Without this help, those who are impoverished generally cannot afford legal services and the illiterate do not have the skills to successfully fill out the required paperwork. These two populations often intersect, as the poor are more likely to be illiterate.
Financed by UNDP and Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), over 50,000 cases in Egypt have now been assisted by free Legal Aid Offices.
The project also trains staff, holds roundtables for family court judges and assists with digitizing family court records. Approximately 17 training sessions and workshops for family court judges have been organized, reaching over 500 judges and legal aid employees.
Dispute Settlement offices have been upgraded as well, and employees have received training on dispute settlement skills, child rights and personal status laws. Additionally, efforts have been made to influence lawmakers to amend laws that would make the processing of cases more efficient and lead to cases being resolved more quickly.
New Goals, New Connections
Beginning in 2013, new goals were added to the project after an evaluation by an independent consultant of the free legal aid in Egypt. These goals include:
- Developing adequate training programming
- Improving court and case management
- Modernizing hotlines in order to get feedback
- Increasing dissemination of legal information
- Designing outreach programs for both literate and illiterate women
The Ministry of Justice is working to establish a central electronic database of court decisions to link electronically to Egypt’s national bank. This connection would make payments awarded by the courts easier to collect.
In December 2014, UNDP, the Egyptian Ministry of Justice, the National Center for Judicial Studies, and the French Cultural Center in Egypt organized a workshop for legal aid employees. This workshop was “to strengthen participants’ knowledge of French legal framework for family mediation and introduce practical tools for mediation based on international best practices and relevance to local family courts.”
Legal Aid in Egypt Empowers Egyptian Women
Approximately one million cases are filed in Egyptian family courts each year, and 80 percent of those are brought by women. Therefore, the UNDP’s legal aid in Egypt is often for women in desperate need of legal services. In fact, over 70 percent of the 50,000 cases handled by the project were filed by women.
Without this support, women — particularly poor and illiterate women — often do not have the resources to settle marital or family disputes. Male family members or spouses can often get away with violent behavior or criminal acts if the woman they’ve harmed is barred from legal aid by a system not amenable to vulnerable populations.
Incidents of Personal Distress
For example, “Yasmin” is an Egyptian woman who faced legal difficulties after her ex-husband kidnapped her oldest daughter. She went to the court on multiple occasions, unable to find a resolution to this problem. However, with the free legal services provided by UNDP, Yasmin was finally able to file her claim in the family court system.
Another woman, Omaima Abdel Khaleq, utilized free legal aid in Egypt to file a domestic violence case against her husband. She explains, “The legal aid office made me aware of what exactly I should do instead of being lost among lawyers.”
Situations like these are not uncommon for women, and the project’s Legal Aid Offices help women complete the required paperwork, as well as provide legal advice about their rights and claims.
Helping the Impoverished and Illiterate
If an individual is illiterate, they are far less likely to be knowledgeable about the laws that protect them (or the person they wish to file a claim against). Without the help of an oftentimes unaffordable attorney or legal services, these people will not be able to access the information they need to correctly file a claim and obtain justice.
Project manager Gihane El Batouty states, “We are helping people themselves — and women themselves — with their legal rights.” UNDP wants to continue to grow this project, as it has become essential to helping the impoverished and illiterate, many of whom are women, access legal aid in Egypt.
Across the globe, UNDP supports similar initiatives in 54 other countries. This support reflects the organization’s commitment to making legal services available to vulnerable populations.
– Sara Olk