Submission on the Legal Services Charter
Apart from our obvious interest in this Charter as a provider of legal services, the AIDS Law Project has been centrally involved in broader efforts to expand access to justice. In February 2005, the ALP co-hosted a conference on improving access to legal services for people living with HIV. The conference was attended by over 150 delegates, representing 78 organisations, including legal services and human rights organisations, Chapter Nine institutions, the Legal Aid Board, paralegal advice offices from rural and urban areas, private law firms, and non-governmental and community-based organisations representing people living with HIV, as users of the legal system. A copy of the consensus statement signed by participants is attached as Annexure “A”, for your information. At the conference, participants identified a number of major barriers that prevent people poor and marginalised groups from using the legal system to challenge unfair discrimination and access their constitutional rights. These barriers include:
- A lack of information about the rights enshrined in the Bill of Rights, as well as the lack of effective mechanisms for the realisation of these rights;
- The inaccessibility of legal services, particularly for civil and human rights matters; and
- The unjustifiably high cost of private legal representation, in the absence of a comprehensive state legal assistance programme.
The conference participants also acknowledged that improving access to the justice system is particularly urgent in the context of the HIV epidemic: not only do people living with HIV experience continued stigma and discrimination in all spheres of life, but there are increasing numbers of people affected by the epidemic who require access to the justice system in order to claim the basic socio-economic rights such as access to health care, social security, food and housing. We therefore endorse paragraph 4.2.1 of the Legal Aid Board’s submission on the Legal Services Charter, which proposes that the Charter should specifically acknowledge factors which have an impact on the nature and scale of the demand for legal services, including the HIV / AIDS epidemic.
Our submission is based on research and information presented at the aforementioned conference on access to legal services, as well as on our own experience as an organisation which has been operating in the field of human rights and legal service provision for the past 14 years. In addition to conducting public impact litigation, the ALP provides a free paralegal advice and assistance service to people living with HIV who have experienced discrimination or human rights violations.In 2006, the ALP dealt with approximately 340 paralegal matters, involving issues ranging from the rights of children affected by the epidemic, confidentiality, access to social security, health care and medical treatment, prisoners’ rights, stigma and harassment in communities, and workplace discrimination.