The mentoring visit was a great opportunity to see first- hand the enormous volume of work which has been accomplished since the inception of the two pilot projects in Bosnia-Herzegovina in December 2013. I was particularly impressed by the strength and commitment of the two organisations running the projects, who clearly appreciated the support they receive from the Association for Democratic Initiatives, the national partner in BiH.
For the Foundation for Local Democracy, funding from the Triple A Project has ensured the provision of information, advice and active help/representation in court for many marginalised women, particularly victims of domestic violence, lone parents and victims of war. The production of a guide on Social Welfare rights, Family Law Procedures and Free Legal Aid Providers in the Canton of Sarajevo (which has been widely distributed), has also assisted many vulnerable women in accessing their rights. The Roundtable which FLD organised in March has helped to facilitate stronger partnership based co-operation between both government and non-government organisations in this sector. It has also assisted in improving the flow of information and referral mechanisms between service providers. The project services and the importance of protecting the rights of women through the Free Legal Aid system have also been widely promoted through a media campaign.
Through the Triple A Project ‘Vasa Prava’ has provided information, advice, assistance and legal representation to many refugees, displaced people, returnees and other vulnerable individuals. The recent creation of a new web based form has enabled the project to provide information and assistance to additional clients particularly on employment rights and social services, which in turn led to the organisation of a very successful seminar on employment rights. Vasa Prava has been very involved in monitoring and reporting on the Justice Sector Reform Strategy and has been very active in advocating for the adoption of the long awaited law on Free Legal Aid in BiH, in conjunction with other NGOs including FLD. Vasa Prava also has a very strong media presence and has managed to promote its services and its reform agenda very successfully.
The visit from NACIS and ‘Your Europe Advice’ lawyer Ernesto Razanno was an opportunity for the pilot projects to discuss their concerns and the challenges they face and to look at ways their services could be further enhanced. Awareness of the ‘Your Europe Advice’ service was found to be helpful in BiH as many citizens have relatives and connections in EU countries. The visit included looking at the Irish Information, Advice and Advocacy experience and examining current practices, policies and procedures in Citizens Information Services and Community Law Centres. It was felt that certain elements of the Irish systems could be usefully adapted to suit the Bosnian context.
The Quality Standards which are currently in place in the pilot projects and those applicable to Citizens Information Services (in particular European Foundation for Quality Management) requirements were also discussed. This was seen as an important element of the visit as apart from the obvious benefits, Quality Standards are increasingly required by funding organisations to ensure that services are effective, efficient and compliant with relevant legislation and good practice principles and the greatest challenge currently facing the pilot projects is the need to secure long term sustainable funding in an environment where opportunities are limited.
My visit to services in Sarajevo and Mostar showed me the value of the services being provided on the ground to multiple beneficiaries. Through hearing the stories of service users, it was apparent to me that the projects are clearly making a difference by ensuring that very vulnerable people have access to justice. I also learnt a great deal from the experience and feel a strong sense of admiration for both projects who are doing tremendous work in extremely challenging circumstances.
Deirdre Casey, National Association of Citizens Information Services Ireland