İdil Elveriş leads the pro bono clearinghouse headquartered at Istanbul Bilgi University Human Rights Center. She recently explained the work of the Turkish clearinghouse and the obstacles she encounters in her efforts to expand pro bono practice in Turkey.
How and why was the clearinghouse in Turkey created?
Like everywhere else, there was a need. State-provided legal aid in Turkey is not always effective as it requires people to prove their low income status as well as their likelihood of success. This process can sometimes be cumbersome; moreover, NGOs cannot take advantage of legal aid. Meanwhile, there are brilliant lawyers in large law firms who do office work and long for more human contact. Therefore, we thought of bringing these parties together. This is how the Istanbul Bilgi University Human Rights Center decided to establish a pro bono network. We started with large law firms, and now we also work with solo practitioners and small partnerships.
How did you determine the need for pro bono in Turkey?
We first worked with NGOs that, in our opinion, were doing professional work in their respective area. We contacted them and asked for their legal needs, whether it was legal representation, advice or legal drafting. We then circulated the list to law firms and matched the parties. Some initial matches worked well and some did not. We also soon discovered that NGOs were not the only potential source of cases. There were many individuals who needed lawyers who did not know or work with any NGOs. We reached out to them by sending some lawyers to social service institutions each week and by taking advantage of the university's location in a poor urban part of Istanbul, reaching out to the local community.
How many NGOs do you work with?
About ten, but not all NGOs are able to refer cases to us. One challenge that remains is to build the legal capacity of NGOs to increase their ability to see potential problems in legal terms and therefore seek legal remedies to these issues.
What kind of matters has the Turkish clearinghouse placed?
In three years, we have placed 269 cases (in 2008 alone, 160 matters). Of these 269, 62 are individual applications while the rest was fed to lawyers through the NGO or social services institution they were working with. One can clearly see that NGOs or institutional settings are very important resources of referral. In terms of the subject matter, most cases concerned violence against women. Women's NGOs in Turkey have been very successful in mobilizing the law. Therefore, they have been the most prolific suppliers of cases. There have also been cases involving criminal law, labor law, housing and credit and consumer issues.
Have you sought support from the ministry of justice and bar association?
We have not because we relied on the legitimacy and visibility of being a university with a social mission that was known in both the social and legal communities. Indeed, we are a non-profit institution with freedom of association, and what we do is for the public good and is totally voluntary. We therefore thought that it did not have to be sanctioned by any governmental or professional institution, and we feared that this could bring red tape. We also did not want the government to relax its commitment to legal aid. After all, it is not individual attorneys but the government that should be providing access to justice for its citizens. Nevertheless, the network grows and issues come up that require support from these authorities. We may therefore need to change our approach in the near future.
How do you think you can overcome some of the challenges you've identified?
Turkey is a young country and that has paid off. We have received much support from young attorneys. Almost every lawyer in the network is under 35. The face of the legal practice is changing with these young lawyers. Their youth and energy help us. In order to overcome challenges, we will have to go out there and explain our good faith efforts that are finding support everywhere in the world. We will need to speak to their hearts.
The Public Interest Law Institute (PILI) is an international NGO that advances human rights around the world by stimulating public interest advocacy and developing the institutions necessary to sustain it.
THE PUBLIC INTEREST LAW INSTITUTE
Public interest law encompasses activities such as campaigning, strategic litigation, legal aid, clinical legal education, legal literacy and other public education programs. PILI's approach is to develop and support the diverse array of organizations, programs and individuals involved in these activities and united by a common sense of mission: strengthening the use of law as an instrument for achieving social justice. In doing so, public interest law activities apply principles of human rights, democracy, open society and the rule of law.
PILI was founded in 1997 with the support of the Ford Foundation as the Public Interest Law Initiative in Transitional Societies at Columbia University. In 2002, PILI moved its headquarters to Budapest, Hungary to be closer to the region where it was working to advance public interest law. In February 2007, PILI separated formally from Columbia University and became a fully independent 501(c)3 non-profit organization and adopted a new name: the Public Interest Law Institute (PILI). PILI continues to collaborate closely with Columbia University, operating a human rights fellowship program for ten students a year within the Law School, where PILI's Executive Director teaches. PILI receives generous support from the Ford Foundation and a variety of public and private donors.
In addition to its Budapest headquarters, PILI maintains offices in New York, Moscow, and Belgrade (Serbia), and a presence in Beijing (China) and Samara (Russia).