Ukraine: an assault on the rule of law, access to justice and a vigorous tech economy

Among the victims of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is likely to be a once-thriving commitment both to legal aid and to technology in its service. That will be both important in itself and symbolic of a wider disavowal of justice in the county. The Hague Institute for Innovation of Law, which has had a Ukrainian-based Innovation Hub, laments ‘As part of its justification, the Russian political leadership invokes an idea of justice that we … do not understand and which runs contrary to the work HiiL has done with many brave and innovative justice practitioners in Ukraine.’

Back in July last year, HiiL reported on developments in Ukraine at Justice Accelerator Pitch Event. ‘In Ukraine, the keynote speaker Roman Romanov, Director of the Human Rights and Justice Program at the International Renaissance Foundation, underscored “that together with HiiL, we are looking at justice as a foundational value, not a court system”. The panel discussion explored how justice innovations can improve people’s awareness of their rights … Olga Osinska, from the Ministry of Digital Transformation in Ukraine, pointed out that the educational series, “Digital Lawyer’s”raises awareness of innovations among lawyers which at the end of the day helps to increase legal awareness of people. And Alexander Baranov, the acting Director of the Coordination Center for Free Legal Aid, shared how they support legal aid services in Ukraine with innovations like the WikiLegalAid portal and legal aid app.’

HiiL has been active in the Ukraine since 2016 when it assisted in a legal aid needs study with the Kharkov Institute for Social Research. The main gaps in provision were ‘Consumer problems, employment disagreements, issues around claiming and receiving welfare benefits and housing are just the most frequently occuring domains of legal problems. Special problems of [internally displaced people] include difficulties accessing ID documents, housing and employment.’ HiiL published more details in its ‘justice dashboard’.  Another survey of the legal needs of small and medium enterprises (of which Ukraine had a thriving economy) was undertaken with the Centre of Democracy and Human Rights in 2020. The problems identified were largely those of a creaking legal systems that struggled to deal, in particular, with ‘regulatory compliance, trade disputes an fraud’. 

Ukraine has participated in HiiL’s Justice Accelerator programme since its first survey . In 2017, a Ukrainian entry was the “Patentbot’ which ‘helps to register a trademark (“TM”) in 5 minutes’. A Youtube video exists of the Ukraine Innovation Justice Challenge in 2020. 

Access to justice applications of tech have been part of a wider commitment to a flourishing legal tech engagement that flows across borders. City A.M., the UK free financial newspaper, reports “the tech industry ties [Ukraine and the UK] together in a way that is much deeper than many appreciate; the UK and Ukraine are today connected by thousands of companies, IT specialists and coders. Did you know that WhatsApp’s founder was Ukrainian? As was one of PayPal’s co-founders. Even the co-inventor of wi-fi was Ukrainian. Have you used the app Grammarly to improve your writing? It’s a Ukrainian startup. Using Snapchat? The masking technology was brought by Looksery from Odessa and led by Yuri Monastyrshin. Revolut cofounder is Vlad Yatsenko from Mykolaiv. Ukraine is also a hotbed of cryptocurrency. Both Solana founder Alex Yakovenko and NearProtocol founder Illia Polosukhin were born in Ukraine.’

Ukraine has developed since independence from the USSR in 1991 a functioning legal aid scheme. This has received technical assistance from varying sources including the Government of Canada and the Council of Europe. It has, for example, ‘administrative and management staff within the Coordination Centre for Legal Aid Provision, 23 regional legal aid centers, 96 local legal aid centers, 432 legal aid bureaus,  and 5 communication-resource platforms’. The Danes have chipped in to support free criminal legal aid. The Director of the Ukrainian Co-ordination Centre for Legal Aid Provision, Andriy Vyshnevsky, said in 2016, ‘Among the results we are proud of is in particular the creation of a mechanism for early access to legal aid (within two hours after detention) for all detainees. Ukrainian human rights activists call it the second most important factor that reduced by half the number of cases of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment of detainees by law-enforcement officers in the last 3 years.’ Also in 2016, the Ukrainian Minister of Justice felt able to say, ‘The system of free legal aid is probably one of the most successful projects of the Ukrainian government. On September 1, 2016, post-Soviet district justice departments, almost 500 throughout the country, became a thing of the past, and we made a decision, which was supported by the government, to create a branched system of bureaus and legal aid centers throughout the country,”’

Such achievements in duty lawyers are unlikely to survive. Also likely to disappear is the International Renaissance Foundation, part of the web of Open Society Foundations funded by Georg Soros in 1990. Since then, there have been times when the foundation was the biggest international donor. It has focused on fighting corruption, opening up freedom of speech, improvement of the education system and criminal justice. As a member of the Legal Aid Reformers Network active in Eastern Europe, IRF participated in discussions which led to the 2008 ‘Model Code of Conduct for Legal Aid Lawyers in Criminal Cases and Model Practice Standards for  Criminal Defence’. The point of this initiative was as part of a drive to move lawyers in the countries of the former USSR to a more active role in defence of their clients. This has been the subject of a major drive by the Open Society Foundation – leading to a 2012 definitive study edited by English expert Ed Cape and Zaza Namaradze ‘Effective Criminal Defence in Eastern Europe’, a study of Bulgaria, Georgia, Lithuania, Moldova and Ukraine. 

Those of a certain age will remember various dyings of the light in Eastern Europe. And the younger can revisit them in the historic last recordings of Hungarian Free Radio in 1956 and coverage from Czechoslovakia in 1968. Let alone other bloody suppression of dissent elsewhere. The current invasion conforms all too much to such history. And among its role of victims will now be a country that was obliterated precisely because of its attempts to reinvigorate the rule of law, access to justice and democracy.

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