Chernihiv Community Justice Center: A Model of Successful Partnership with Regional Courts and Local Community

Community Justice Centers (CJCs) are a relatively new model of cooperation between the judiciary, the justice sector, and the public in Ukraine, which is being successfully implemented in many countries, including the United States, Singapore, and Latin America.

The Centers provide legal aid to citizens, facilitate alternative dispute resolution, inform about the activities of courts and other state agencies in the justice sector, promote access to justice, and solving problems in communities (for example, street crime, domestic violence, human trafficking, etc.). The CJCs, in general, help to increase public confidence in the judiciary, as they can act as intermediaries between courts, judges, and the judiciary employees on the one hand and citizens and communities on the other.

In Ukraine, the USAID New Justice Program supported creating the first six centers of that kind in Kyiv, Odesa, Chernihiv, and Kharkiv regions to improve access to justice and reduce court caseloads.

In the Chernihiv region, Community Justice Center has been operating since last year. 

Natalia Kulikova – Head of the Chernihiv CJC. PHOTO: Chernihiv CJC

We strive to help everyone who applies to us and do it up to the mark. Over an entire period of the Center’s activity, courts haven’t dismissed any of the claims we filed at the request of citizens,” said Natalia Kulikova, the Chernihiv CJC Head. 

Currently, this CJC has four employees; however, various experts and consultants are outsourced from time to time. Typically, the Center’s workload is 80-100 appeals per month, but since the beginning of the current year, their number has increased to almost 140. 

“Such a workload is related to both legal issues arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and the processes of decentralization and reduction of the network of state authorities. People don’t know currently which structures they should apply,” said Ms. Natalia. 

The Chernihiv region CJC is located in Chernihiv and operates at the local NGO’s office – Chernihiv Public Committee Commission for  Human Rights Protection. The Center also has its branch offices based in Ichnia and Bakhmach District Courts; it cooperates with the Chernihiv Court of Appeal, Desna District Court in Chernihiv City, Kozelets, and Chernihiv District Courts. The CJC provides comprehensive services that include primary and secondary legal aid, counseling and referring clients to competent agencies, community mediation, facilitation, legal education, etc.

We have noticed that when the CJCs operate in courts, it is a great way to overcome the tensions that often arise between citizens and court staff. On the one hand, courts are often overloaded, and it is difficult for their staff to devote enough time to each visitor. On the other hand, people do not always understand the nature of courts and their offices’ activities. During the lock-down, when we continued to work actively online, people from other regions, where there are no such centers, even started to apply to our Centre,” Ms. Natalia stated about the Center’s cooperation with the regional courts and citizens.

Tetyana Karapysh – the Chief Judge of the Ichnia District Court of the Chernihiv Region. PHOTO: provided by Karapysh T. V.

I, among others, lobbied for having a CJC office in our Court. In general, I believe that such Centers, or their branches, should operate in every Court because there is a place to send people who lack money to cover for legal aid they desperately need. Of course, there are Free Legal Aid Centers, but they are often overcrowded. Elderly people, many of whom reside in our area, especially need such help. Some of them faced problems they were not able to solve for years, and now, thanks to the CJC’s efforts, they have finally started to solve them,” said Tetyana Karapysh, Chief Judge of the Ichnia District Court, about collaboration with the CJC. 

Another important area of cooperation between the Court and the Center is a School of Legal Sciences for Children, which provides informational meetings with school students and teachers.

Pavlo Parkhomenko, Chief Judge of the Bakhmach District Court, is also grateful to the CJC for supporting educational initiatives at regional schools. It concerns informing children about their rights, the activities of courts, and the state legal system. 

Pavlo Parkhomenko – Chief Judge of the Bakhmach District Court of the Chernihiv Region. PHOTO: provided by Parkhomenko P. I.

But due to the lock-down restrictions this year, we are able, unfortunately, to arrange mostly online events,” said judge Parkhomenko.

In addition to educational outreach activities, the Court, and the Center, jointly with representatives of the Prosecutor’s Office, police, and other interested state authorities of the region, intend to set up a platform for discussions and solve urgent community problems.

The CJC client Olga Pustovoyt received the Center’s assistance in obtaining reversal of the court judgment on payment of debts for heating. Ms. Olga managed to repay the debt when receiving the Court’s order, but the Utility Service has already filed a lawsuit. Some acquaintances advised her to apply to the CJC. Ms. Olga says that the Center issued the necessary set of documents very promptly, in a few days. She only provided the court order and the receipt certifying the repayment of the debt. 

I was anxious when I received the letter from the court. Besides, I did not want to pay the court’s fee and the failure penalty for the debt I had repaid earlier. Money is an issue for me. But the Center’s staff told me everything. They explained how I should act in my situation and promised to prepare all the necessary documents,” said the woman, who would advise other people in similar situations to apply to the CJC.

Another CJC client Linda Lytvyn came to ask for assistance with the divorce proceeding. The Court had rejected her claim due to improper filing. After searching the Internet for various samples, Linda filed a new claim, but it was also declined. The court clerks then advised the woman to apply to the CJC. 

When I called, I couldn’t believe that the Center provided free of charge assistance. They told me to come at any convenient time. All necessary documents were quickly prepared and printed. In my situation, it was a highly needed and timely provided assistance,” Linda said.

Due to its efficient interaction with citizens and courts, the Center has gained a high profile in the region and other government agencies that began to apply it to address the issues of the Chernihiv community. For instance, at the end of the last year, the Head of the local Territorial Center for Social Services requested the CJC to help resolve the situation with a foreign citizen placed in a critical condition in one of the city’s hospitals. The Center’s professionals liaised with all government agencies vested with authority in this matter, namely the Department of the State Migration Service in the Chernihiv region, the City Hospital where the patient has been placed, and the International Organization for Migration Mission in Ukraine. All the agencies provide their assistance in resolving the issue; however, the matter is still under consideration.

We took it as a problem of both a specific person and the Chernihiv community. Of course, we make every effort to tackle the issue; we even lobby for creating a response procedure to address similar cases so that the community is prepared for new challenges. Again, such situations show us that the CJC’s role is to facilitate access to justice by providing everyone with the necessary legal assistance,” said Natalia Kulikova.

The Chernihiv CJC plans to expand cooperation with the community and the courts, namely, to hold round tables and forums on topical legal issues to effectively address the community’s problems by joint efforts and increasing the number of branch offices. 

For example, in late February, in cooperation with the Department of Family, Youth and Sports, the Children’s Service of the Chernihiv Region State Administration, the Chernihiv Regional Center for Social Services, and the Chernihiv Region Juvenile Prevention Department, the CJC held a coordination meeting to establish mechanisms for cooperation in combating domestic violence involving representatives of Ichnia City Council, District Court judges, police officers, and employees of Ichnia Legal Aid Bureau. 

Therefore, despite certain quarantine restrictions, the Center’s staff continues working to benefit their community and help people meet their legal needs.