In 1916, the Danish government passed the Retsplejelov (Administration of Justice Act) and in 1919 the law went into force. The Act fulfilled the promises of the 1849 Danish Constitution on the separation of the administration of justice from the administration, on the introduction of public and oral administration of justice, and on jurors’ involvement in criminal proceedings. The 1,000+-paragraph law has been amended multiple times since the early 20th century, most recently in 2013. Who cares, you might ask? Well it just so happens that one of the provisions in the law (Ch. 31) is the basis on which a free legal aid service has recently opened in Aalborg…
Chapter 31 of the Retsplejelov obligates the Ministry of Justice to provide funding and grants for legal aid for ‘everyone’ (meaning, presumably, everyone in Denmark), depending on the level of legal advice required. There are three levels of legal advice in Denmark. The first is verbal, which consists of ‘advice on the spot.’ This includes, in addition to assistance in person or over the phone, help conducted by email. It generally follows a ‘one question-one reply’ rule and does not require the legal advisor to go into great detail. The second form of legal advice is written and extends beyond the first level to in-depth written legal help, such as replies to governmental services/organisations on the behalf of the citizen. The third is representation of clients in ‘settlement of negotiations’, which consists of two sub-levels. One is a purely supportive role as a client talks over matters with another party or appears in the lower levels of court; the second is speaking on behalf of a client, whether in the lower levels of court or, for example, during a mediation between the parties.
The Retsplejelov mandates that the Minister of Justice provide complete funding for level 1, ensuring the ‘right to free legal aid in step 1 on any question of law.’ However, partially free legal assistance is provided for levels 2 and 3 as well, provided the client is not involved in: 1) public criminal proceedings; 2) active trader cases of predominantly commercial nature; 3) cases of debt restructuring, or; 4) matters affecting or being processed by an administrative authority or a private complaint or appeal boards approved by the Minister for Family and Consumer Affairs.
Until October 2014 the implementation of this section of the Retsplejelov in Aalborg consisted of the option to either visit the Advokatvagten, which translates to ‘The Attorney Watch,’ or consult De Jurastuderendes Retshjælp (‘The Law Students’ Legal Aid’) for free level 1 legal assistance. However, both are limited in terms of the levels and amount of assistance they are able to provide. Advokatvagten offers free level 1 and some level 2 legal assistance on a first-come, first-served basis two hours a week and De Jurastuderendes Retshjælp is limited to only level 1 legal assistance. (For those interested in these services, Advokatvagten is available at Aalborg Main Library on Mondays from 16:00 to 18:00 [click here for more information in Danish] and De Jurastuderendes Retshjælp is available Tuesdays and Thursdays from 15:00 to 18:00. More information on their opening hours and service locations here.) However, much more comprehensive legal aid offices have been operating in other cities in Denmark for several years. The largest is the Social Legal Aid (Den Sociale Retshjælp) office in Århus, started in 2007, which boasts a staff of around 150.
It was while working with similar legal aid services in Århus that Dennis Jakobsen, who is from Aalborg, came up with the idea of establishing a legal assistance organization in his home city. On 1th October of last year, he founded and opened the doors of Legal Aid – Retshjælp i Danmark. Jakobsen, who works for Aalborg Kommune in the administration’s legal department, holds two Masters degrees – one in law and another in business law.
Legal Aid is staffed almost solely by AAU law students studying law and/or business law. To date, there is only one paid part-time employee – the ‘daily leader’ – who provides legal advice and administrative support for the organization; the remainder of the 26-member staff work entirely on a voluntary basis, although they do have contracts that specify the number of hours they agree to work. At the time of writing the office has four teams, each led by a team leader and consisting of 6-7 members. Their work is supervised by the daily leader. Legal Aid’s board of directors, led by Jakobsen, consists of four members but will grow to six within the next several months.
According to Martin Daugaard Drejer and Kristin Assaad, both team leaders and board members of Legal Aid, the organization’s staff members are able to provide all but the last form of legal advice (second sub-level of client representation). As law students in their 4th to 10th semesters, the volunteers recognize the unique and practical opportunity this work presents. ‘If you work as an intern at a law firm, you are likely to spend a lot of time taking notes and making copies,’ said Drejer. ‘Here we have the chance to actually be involved in cases and learn how the law works in practice.’ Still, the work is demanding; while Drejer and Assad’s contracts stipulate 4-8 hours of work a week, they both put in over 20 each on average. This, in addition to heavy course loads, makes life busy for the students, to put it mildly.
At the moment, Legal Aid is funded solely by the Civil Board, which is responsible for funding all legal aid services in the country. (Aside from that, local store owners and organizations have contributed resources to the Legal Aid office in the form of donations, e.g. coffee and stationery.) However, there is competition for the Civil Board’s money and the items in the services’ budget that the Civil Board covers are limited; for example, the resources the Civil Board pays for are Legal Aid’s office, equipment, electricity, phone line, Internet connection and some salary costs. The Civil Board does not yet cover staff salaries for Legal Aid in Aalborg, although the application the organization put in for 2015 funding includes money to cover the salary of a full-time daily leader. Legal Aid staff have also requested funds from Aalborg Kommune, which would extend the service’s reach. Social Legal Aid in Århus, for example, has secured funding from not only the Civil Board but also Århus Kommune and private firms, which allows them to pay 20 of their 150 staff for full-time work.
Most of Legal Aids clients are middle to lower income residents, although the organization provides help to everyone regardless of financial means. At rare times, they even help wealthy clients who are pressed for time and cannot get appointments with other legal offices. ‘We do not turn anyone away,’ said Assaad. To date they have helped Somalis, Greenland natives, and Eastern Europeans, among other non-Danish residents, in addition to Danes. The staff members speak a range of languages, including Danish, English, Spanish, Arabic, Tamil, Turkish, Turkmen, Bosnian, German, Kurdish, Farsi, and Dari. While they can take nearly all cases presented to them, the types of cases that international residents generally bring them center on asylum, family reunification, Green Card applications, and employment-related. (Legal Aid does not provide assistance with business-to-business, tax or criminal law-related cases.) If the case is too large, which the staff tries to determine during the first intake or consultation appointment, Legal Aid will advise the person which legal professional they should see instead.
While it has taken Legal Aid a while to get started, it is clear there is a need for their services. When I spoke with them on 4 December 2014, Drejer and Assaad reported that the office had received its 100th case that day. They receive an average of five cases a day but that is sure to increase as the organization gains more visibility. Eventually, Drejer and Assaad said, they would like to have enough staff so that they can have different departments, hire social workers (many times clients come in only because they need to vent their frustrations about a certain legal-related situation), and open a subsidiary for debt counselling, which requires the counsellors to have taken certain courses in order to ensure the quality of the counselling. This is based on a moral principle to help people on a qualified basis, and not on legal regulations as anyone can technically call themselves a “debt counsellor” in Denmark.
All Aalborg Kommune residents who need legal assistance but are unable to pay or would just like advice on the specific type of help they need are encouraged to contact Legal Aid. The organization’s telephone number is 32 21 90 95 and their email address is email@example.com. If you would like to visit in person, the office can be found at Kattesundet 24, 1, 9000 Aalborg. Opening hours are:
Monday – Wednesday 11:00-14:00
There are photos of each staff member and the languages he/she speaks on the website here. While I have not used Legal Aid’s services myself, I was extremely impressed by Drejer’s and Assaad’s responsiveness and professionalism during our correspondence and in-person meeting for this blog post. I am sure I would visit them if I needed legal help.