Since December 2019, we have been conducting a project titled “Women’s Access to Justice: Monitoring the Implementation of Laws Towards Violence Against Women“. In this study, we monitor the scope and quality of the legal aid services women receive from bar associations within the extent of Law No. 6284 and cases concerning the Family Law. The knowledge and experience we gathered from women who applied to us presented that the information that they have the right to consult bar associations for free legal support is not widely known. Moreover, when they do, they may encounter various challenging procedures and not women-friendly approaches which depend on the bar association. Therefore, we started this research to light on the legal support provided by bar associations for women who are subjected to violence and to assist in improving it.
Within the scope of this study, we organized two focus group meetings on July 4th and July 11th, with the participation of lawyers from legal aid offices and members of the women’s rights commission of bar associations to talk about different practices among bar assoications and to share our experiences. We met with ten bar associations, which are İstanbul, Balıkesir, Nevşehir, Ordu, Rize, Denizli, Trabzon, Kütahya, Aksaray and Samsun, received information and listened to their experiences. We organized our focus group meetings around four questions:
1) Do you appoint a lawyer for applications related to Law No. 6284? Do you require any documents from the applicants?
2) Are lawyers and legal aid personnel receive any workshops/training regarding gender and violence against women?
3) How do the procedures work for a woman victim of a crime (assault, etc.) in the legal aid office?
4) What could be done so that the legal aid service can better support the women?
According to Article 57 of the Istanbul Convention, “Parties are obliged to provide the victims the right to receive free legal aid under the conditions specified by the domestic law.” However, meetings we organized presented that there are limitations to the legal aid service provided under Law No. 6284. While all bar associations appoint lawyers to women who do not have the means to cover attorney fees and legal expenses, for family law cases like divorce, alimony and custody, only a few bar associations appoint lawyers for applications under the Law No. 6284. Representatives of bar associations that do not appoint lawyers within the range of Law No. 6284 stated that they assist women in these applications in writing a petition. Lawyers working in the bar’s legal aid offices that do not make appointments, some indicated that women already knew about their rights under the Law No. 6284 and that they knew how to apply for a protection orders by going to law enforcement. It caused an impression that it is considered not necessary to appoint a lawyer for women under Law No. 6284.
As Mor Çatı, based on the data we obtained from our applicants, we know that Law No. 6284 is vital for the prevention of violence against women. Benefiting from it via making an application with the help of a lawyer significantly increases the effectiveness of the law in practice. Injunctions regarding the prevention of violence – which are given ex-officio by law enforcement and submitted to the approval of the family court or taken by the family courts upon the prosecutor’s application- are made in an urgent manner. As a result, there are similar copy-paste decisions granted to women that do notmeet the specific needs of women, such as temporary custody and alimony. For that reason, it is vital to seek professional support from a lawyer at the process of requesting, extending or changing these preventive measures. Besides, perpetrators of violence sentenced to forced imprisonment in the case of violation of the injunctions issued under the law. Coercive imprisonment is a foreseen mechanism in terms of the effectiveness of the law. The prerequisite of it is that the injunctions to be notified to the perpetrator in person. In the practice, often short-term preventive measures such as fifteen days, one month, two months are taken. Thus, the role of lawyers is very prominent in notifying the perpetrator of injunctions within a reasonable time by law enforcement.
Bar associations have different procedures regarding the applications of women, which is another problem that ought to address. Bars only assign the lawyers to applicants who meet the “required” economic conditions, for which women expected to collect numerous documents from banks and various public institutions to determine whether they can afford the attorney’s fee and legal costs. Although bar associations have discretionary right on it, differences in implementation observed among them. Some bar associations follow discouraging practices like proofs that women do have an account in 12 Turkish banks, while others only ask for poverty certificates, identity cards and settlement documents to decide whether they need a lawyer after meeting the applicant in person. Collecting official papers from these many separate institutions to verify their economic status is a time-consuming, costly and mentally draining process for women. Additionally, often they cannot benefit from a caregiver or companion support for their children, and they have a limited likelihood to get a personal leave since they work in low-paid, insecure jobs. Furthermore, some bar associations also require women to present documents that they deem as evidence, like a health report for physical violence, a suspension order, to evaluate whether the applicant meets the legal interest criteria.
Moreover, we have observed that, for the applications made within 6284, legal aid units usually steer the legal support they should have given towards the women’s rights commission and all the burden loaded on the volunteering women lawyers. There is neither a sustainable and sufficient mechanism, nor an institutional structure to support women, but the individual struggle undertaken by few number of volunteer women lawyers. Therefore, most applicants are not aware that they can apply to the bars. Likewise, lawyers who accept applications do not receive regular and systematic support on gender and violence against women topics. Except in a few large bar associations, mostly they do not receive workshops/training, but lawyers in the legal aid units expressed it as a fundamental need in our interview. Also, they stated that the work of TUBAKKOM guided them before, but it is not as active. They demand supervision. Funding is their biggest concern; for which reason in small cities, a systematic support mechanism could not emerge. Moreover, each bar operates its legal aid activities unaware of each other solely with the efforts of voluntary lawyers. During the pandemic and quarantine process, we also have experienced this dysfunctionality within bars.
Our meetings were essential in raising awareness among the participating lawyers about their shortcomings, how they relate to applicant women, and to rethink their own needs in the process, as well as in determining the range and nature of the support provided to women. Hence, we observed that positive transformation could only be possible by going beyond the responsibilities of women lawyers, via institutionalization.