We want to tell our supporters about a new component of our work – adding a legal aid component to our outreach work with Moscow drug users. Human rights and strategic litigation was at core of ARF work, but it mostly were strategic work with single cases from various cities aimed at changing the Russian legislation and make it more complicit with the International Law and supportive of humane drug policy. Outreach work in Moscow was not part of these activities. At some point of our human rights and litigation work we came to the conclusion that in most situation professional lawyers can do less than people themselves in order to represent their interests. Lawyers may be needed in order to fulfill some formal tasks, but drug users themselves can do a lot of work if they are aware of their rights and empowered to stand for them - with our assistance and with some legal oversight. Thus emerged a decision to grow our own street lawyers. The concept of our «Street Lawyers» project is to add on to our health harm reduction activities with the component of legal aid to our participants, but minimize involvement of professional lawyers but rather training outreach workers and project participants to gain understanding of legal issues and skills of legal representation. To achieve that we organize training for outreach workers to gain legal skills and to be able to help participants represent their interests in courts, public offices, hospitals etc. and also enable participants to defend their rights. Soon we realized that legal representation should be a core part of harm reduction activities – as important as health – as injustice, overincarceration, violations of human rights and human dignity are great harms of the War on drugs that ruin peoples lives, health, dignity and integrity.
We have received funding from the Levi Strauss Foundation for the advocacy work and used co-funding from our Crystal of Hope Award to fund prevention materials and launched the project on July 1, but a lot of preparation work was done before that. So from July 1st we have continued to carry out daily outreach visits to the streets of Moscow to meet with people who use drugs. We now have a team of 17 street workers consisting of 13 outreach workers, two case managers (one of them focuses specifically on women), one medical worker and one lawyer who select evenings of the week that are convenient for them and work in pairs. Also sometimes unpaid volunteers and journalists join the pairs. The visits last about 1-2 hours or as long as it takes to give out all the materials that the outreachers can carry in their backpacks.
Altogether, from July 1st to December 31st, 2013 we have had 938 contacts with drug users, of them 260 were contacts with women. We encountered 402 new project participants (135 women) and provided prevention materials (needles and syringes, condoms, alco-swaps, ointments, bandages, vitamins as well as Naloxone to prevent overdose deaths) carried out testing and counseling for HIV and hepatitis C on demand and provided short consultations on health and legal issues, as well as referral to medical and social services in Moscow. Some people asked for more specific assistance and our case managers worked to help them on their issues. As we started implementation of the legal aid component, our outreach consultations and case management started to concentrate more and more on legal issues encountered by the participants and utilize more and more legal tools and instruments.
We do have one professional and very enthusiastic lawyer Timur working with our team and one lawyer from a partner project who sometimes go to outreach and engage with participants out on the streets. Most commonly, we start with contact on the street during regular outreach then case management addressing participants’ medical issues and then legal issues emerge too.
The project experienced problems in the first few months when people did not address to us with their legal problems as they were used to the idea that we mostly focus on health. We have printed and handed out special contact cards, but people were saying, "Well I'm taking [the card], but I don’t need it, I'm all right". However, after about three months we started to work on the real cases. Then another problem emerged – we would start to work with someone, and then something happened to them (police, jail, closed hospital) so that they could no longer sign the contract with ARF enabling us the power of attorney, and we could not act on their behalf. Because of this, we decided to develop an algorithm for working on all our cases: first, we interview the participant who needs help, then, with the help of a lawyer we analyze the interview/situation and decide which directions can be pursued, and we develop a case management plan. Then the person signs the power of attorney form and the case management agreement, we make copies of all available documents. However, in some situations this algorithm does not work, because new problems emerge suddenly (usually with police, detention or arrest) that were not discussed during the interview, so we need to be very flexible and change our tactics immediately, to react to the new circumstances. But having the contract and the power of attorney form greatly helps to represent participants’ interests later on.
Another problem is that project participants often ask for help at the last moment, for example just shortly before the court. In such cases, we do not have time to prepare sufficiently, motivate the participant, explain to him/her the potential risks, and tell them about special procedures. In such cases we depart from our algorithm and we conduct a brief interview only on the substance of the matter and there is no time to develop a detailed plan of social support, we act according to the situation.
It actually matters for judges if social workers are involved in the trial! Even in cases where we are not admitted into the process as public defenders, we actually manage to do a lot for the benefit of our participants. We enclose the case management plan to the case, write a statement to be read during the trial by a social worker. And during sentencing, some judges relied on some of those documents and paid attention to the presence of a social worker in the courtroom to soften the punishment. Note that the rate of acquittal sentences in Russia is estimated at 0,6% so the realistic goal at the first stage is to get a softer punishment.
We have faced several situations related to terminating parental rights to women accused on the 228 article (drugs) and developed a model of working with guardianship authorities. It involves an approach referred to as “family conferences”. Family conferences are one of the remediation technology tools, a technique for working with families. A family discusses the problem/issue and produces the most acceptable and workable plan for themselves. The role of the professionals is mostly facilitative - the family hears the opinion of experts but develops the plan themselves. It turned out that experts from guardianship authorities have basically no idea about the issue of dependency and approaches to working with drug-dependent people and they usually have very negative and judgmental attitude – disregarding the real situation in families and parents’ effort to maintain the family and care about the kids, the mere fact of their drug use serves as a ground to decide that they are not able to take care of the kids. Tragically, the guardianship authorities opinion is the most important ground for judges decisions on terminating parental rights in courts. In spite of what we can do, if the expert opinion of a guardianship authority is negative the court will decide in favor of terminating parental rights.
Similar situations emerge when we cooperate with penal system inspectors who oversee the probation. One of our participants has missed one visit to his inspector – he had to leave the city and informed the inspector beforehand in writing. However, the inspector issued a petition to punish our participant with a real prison sentence. Our social worker met with representatives of the inspection, described our work and our social support to the client, but to no effect. And the court only takes into account the opinion of an inspector when making its decision without considering other circumstances.
Another challenge is communicating with our participants’ parents. Many parents believe in lawyers and do not have much faith in public defenders. So they prefer to pay lawyers who are not really competent or efficient, and sometimes even obstruct our work. In such situations the project would benefit from having a person with the official status of attorney who could, if necessary, show them the documents (and also charge a lot of money and later give them to the poor!).
During the last month of 2013 we have realized our dream to make a Newspaper written by our participants and team members. Our first issue of the newspaper (called Slyapa I bayan), there were two articles on legal issues: on the rights of drug users and on the cons of the special order procedure, motivating people not to plea guilty without investigation and stand for Justice.
Our main partner on this project is Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network whose representative Mikhail Golichenko often consult us on most of the cases and oversees preparation of legal documents and provides advise on legal strategies within a particular case. Mikhail have organized several seminars for project outreach workers where we developed the strategy and algorithm, and received some basic knowledge and understanding on how to represent participants rights in various instances. Mikhail also led several seminars for legal specialists. In order to seek new partnerships, together with Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network we have organized a series of lectures for legal clinics in Moscow, as we had an idea to refer some cases to those legal clinics. But it doesn’t happen as we envisaged, as students in the legal clinics are not ready to take up real cases yet – so at the moment they help us to find answers for some legal questions - we prepare questions, and the legal clinics prepare the answers. This process does not go as fast as we would like it to but this is an emerging partnership. We have also had several meetings with the Public Interest Law Network who distributed our questions to a number of legal firms providing Pro Bono services in Russia. They have also answered some questions but we wish they could take several cases from us. Another legal partnership is with lawyers association Agora, who for example, took our case Margarita Charykova (see below) and greatly help, basically freed her out of prison and applied to the European Court on Human Rights on her behalf. We also partner with the project hand.help.ru, which focuses on online legal aid on drug issues. Their lawyer Arseniy Levinson works as a volunteer with ARF goes to outreach and advises us on legal cases.
What did we learn from the project?
Timur, The project lawyer: ”I have learned a lot about the legal problems of drug users and about the barriers they face when trying to realize their rights”.
Sonya, the project medical worker: ”I have learned a lot about the problematic access to medical help that drug users experience”. I am proud of the fact that Naloxone that we give out saves lives
Lena, the case manager (focusing on women): ”Almost the entire legal sphere is novel to me. Before I knew only in broad terms that drug users face serious rights abuse, but now I understand the specifics, nuts and bolts”.
Evgenii (social worker): Thanks to the project, I learned a lot about the Russian legislative system and Russian law enforcement. I became more confident when facing police, and several times I was able to suppress the abuse of my rights using the new knowledge. On multiple occasions, the police have decided to stop wasting their time harassing and intimidating me and my companions, to stop forcing me into giving testimonies, to stop illegally searching my car and going through my personal belongings.
What are we most proud of?
Timur, The project lawyer: “I am proud that some of the drug users are willing to assert their rights when given assistance. I am especially proud of our participant Ildar who didn't compromise his principles and did not agree to plea guilty and got out as a result. I am also proud that our case managers (who are not lawyers themselves) already participate in the court hearings to the full extent”.
Sonya, our medical worker: ” I am proud of the fact that Nalaxon that we give out saves lives”.
Lena, the case manager (focusing on women): ”I am proud that I participate in this project”.
Evgenii (social worker):I am proud of my colleagues who assist people who got into a difficult legal situation and bureaucratic trap. These situations worsen people’s lives and strengthen their addiction, making them defenseless against the corruption of courts, abusive cops and prisons. Our achievements are a drop in the sea, but even if we can achieve a little, alleviate people suffering even a little, reduce their prison sentence -- all of those things warm my heart and strengthen me. I believe that a localized struggle against the rotten system cultivates the positive dynamics, which will eventually overpower the omnipotence of the absurd and corrupt, and will increase my own and my friends independence and freedom.
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