The system of pro bono lawyers is an indispensable link in people's effective access to justice and the courts.
Lawyer Geert Lenssens rightly argues for the preservation of the tax deductibility of legal aid insurance introduced by then-Minister of Justice Koen Geens(De Tijd, 10 May 2023).
For Advocaat.be, access to law and justice is central, for every litigant. The government must guarantee that right: article 23 of the Constitution stipulates that everyone has the right to legal assistance. The European Convention on Human Rights and European Union law confirm this.
Two instruments through which the government fulfils that duty attract attention.
Legal expenses insurance
Legal expenses insurance was introduced in 2019, which is tax-deductible - to a limited extent. This is an important means of ensuring that middle-income families can still get legal help from a lawyer. With this insurance you are covered, for example, in family disputes, criminal cases, tax files and construction problems. These are all areas of law that normal legal expenses insurance policies often exclude.
There were 106,893 of that type of policy in circulation in 2021, according to figures released by Justice Minister Van Quickenborne based on information from the FPS Finance. The numbers are going up in rapid succession. So citizens are counting on it. Tax-advantaged legal expenses insurance is a win-win. It improves access to justice by keeping the policy affordable through the tax benefit. While tax revenues for the government decline, that shortcoming is more than compensated in higher tax revenues from insurance companies and lawyers.
That finance minister Van Peteghem, barely four years after its introduction, already wants to shake up the system again, we do not understand.
Lawyer pro bono
Even more important than that insurance is classic second-line legal assistance, better known in the corridors as pro bono. This is the government's second tool for working out access to justice. Brother Lenssens labels it as too inaccessible, outdated and not to be taken seriously. Wrongly so.
The figures speak for themselves. Whereas lawyers pro bono were appointed in 96,003 cases in 2006-2007 in Flanders, in 2021-2022 this was in 150,942 cases. This trend is also on the rise. The Bureau for Legal Assistance (BJB) in Antwerp, for instance, handles 300 applications a day, and that number is growing steadily. Elsewhere in the country, a similar trend is noticeable.
Access to pro bono lawyer assistance depends on the financial condition of the applicant. Advocaat.be has always advocated for raising the income limits that gave access to pro bono. Back in 2017, we advocated raising the limit for completely free legal assistance to EUR 1,500. That increase did not come until 2020. The phased increase now provided for in the law snaps the limit at EUR 1,526 from 1 September 2023. The Court of Audit calculated that this will make about 2.8 million people eligible for full or partially free second-level assistance.
Contrary to claims, the assistance is far from being provided only by trainee lawyers: in 2023, 34.68% of all Flemish lawyers will receive compensation for services they provided in second-line assistance. That is 3,814 lawyers out of a corps of 11,000, so they are definitely not all trainee lawyers. Nor are the appointments thoughtless. They take into account the areas in which lawyers are active and constantly train themselves. Lawyers who do not behave professionally can be excluded from BJB appointments. Such monitoring is done systematically.
The appointments are made via a high-performance IT platform developed by Advocaat.be in 2002 and thoroughly revised last year. Soon, this platform should even offer access to all the government information necessary to assess a litigant's application. The litigant will be able to make a request for assistance via smartphone and, after identification via itsme, be sent the name of the lawyer mere seconds later. This puts the Belgian Legal Aid Offices at the forefront. Foreign lawyer organisations view our platform with admiration and some envy.
Thus, the second-line assistance is certainly not a dilapidated instrument, but rather an indispensable link in effective access to law and justice.
Thanks to the efforts of thousands of lawyers and dozens of staff at Legal Aid Offices, seven days a week.
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