Access to justice
Access to justice is a fundamental right and an irreplaceable part of the legal order. It includes the right to a fair and speedy trial by an independent and unprejudiced body established by law; the right to effective means of defense; the right to be advised, defended, and represented; and the right to legal aid for those who do not otherwise have access to it.
Over the last few years, a central topic in Bulgaria’s political debate has been structural changes to the judiciary—reducing the power of the Chief Prosecutor, introducing a mechanism to check his powers and recall him, abolishing the specialized courts and the prosecutor’s office, amendments to the Counter-Corruption and Unlawfully Acquired Assets Forfeiture Act, and other reforms aiming for a more independent and effective court procedure. International institutions and the country’s partners have also paid particular attention to the problems in this area. However, at this moment, the political mainstream is not allowing these changes to take place.
The database of the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) shows that in relation to Bulgaria, the court found the most violations in connection with Article 6 of the Convention, guaranteeing the right to a fair trial, followed by violations of Article 13 relating to access to effective judicial remedies. This is a clear signal of problems related to access to justice in Bulgaria.
For more than ten years, the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee has been actively committed to the issue of access to justice. To that end, it fights for the independence of the Bulgarian judiciary and for reforms ensuring that the law enforcement in our country keeps pace with international human rights standards.
The effective protection of marginalized communities—not only in words, but also in practice—from violations of their fundamental rights is impossible without an independent judiciary that operates according to the highest moral and professional standards.
Working off of these principles, BHC was—if only temporarily—among the first members of the public council of the Supreme Judicial Court. Since then, our organization continues to participate in efforts to reform the judiciary, advocating for transparent appointments of professionals with strong moral qualities and credibility.
BHC is one of the organizations actively working to ensure access to justice for every person on Bulgarian territory. We fight for:
- Mandatory legal defense for suspected and accused individuals from the moment of their detention by police, particularly for those who are not able to understand or effectively participate in the criminal proceedings due to their age, intellectual or physical state, or disabilities;
- High-quality, adequately-paid legal aid;
- The strengthening of procedural rights rights and measures for the support and defense of victims of crimes;
- The creation of effective complaint mechanisms for those who have suffered abuse at the hands of public officials;
- The refusal to accept any form of discrimination when it comes to access to justice;
- The strengthening of the capacity and independence of the justice system;
BHC is the only civil organization participating with submissions in the execution procedure of an ECHR judgment that was momentous for the Bulgarian judiciary. The case of Kolevi v. Bulgaria concerns the absence of any possibility of an independent investigation of the Chief Prosecutor and potential crimes he committed.
Since 2015, BHC has been Bulgaria’s leading organization in the monitoring of the implementation of European directives aimed at strengthening the procedural rights of suspected and accused individuals in criminal proceedings. Moreover, BHC publishes its own yearly analysis of the state of the Bulgarian justice system in its annual reports. We also contribute to the European Commission’s annual report on the rule of law.
In 2017, BHC published a thematic report on the declarations of the rights of detained individuals in criminal proceedings. Then, in 2018, we published the first national report on the procedural rights of individuals with intellectual or psychological disabilities in criminal proceedings. In the same year, we also published a national report examining the compliance of national legislation and practice with the European standards for access to an attorney and legal aid.
BHC was one of the first organizations to advocate for the adoption of the Legal Aid Act in 2006. That year, the organization won the case Padalov v. Bulgaria in the ECHR, organized several international conferences, lobbied for the issue to be included in the pre-accession process, and participated in discussions on the bill.
All in all, thanks to the free legal aid that we provide to vulnerable, marginalized groups in strategic cases stemming from systemic problems that impact many people, BHC is able to help those who otherwise would not have sought or received justice.