Justice Champions of Change:
Argentina’s Access to Justice Centers are a bold new step towards bringing justice into communities. The first center was established by the country’s Ministry of Justice and Human Rights in 2008 in the city of Buenos Aires. The idea behind it was twofold. First, it would bring justice services closer to the people who need them by placing them in the heart of communities. Second, it would offer a holistic response to justice-related problems by providing other services that people experiencing justice problems might need under the same roof. To achieve this, multidisciplinary teams work closely with other agencies and justice sector actors.
Today there are 90 Access to Justice Centers in Argentina, mostly serving vulnerable populations that were previously unable to access justice. The initiative has become a model for people-centered justice, inspiring similar programs around the world.
For the second in our Justice Champions of Change series, Mark Weston spoke to Evelina Conti, Inés Sanjurjo and Soledad Zamora, who work at a center in Villa 31 in the Retiro de la Ciudad district of Buenos Aires, to find out the secret of the program’s success.
Mark: First of all, could you tell me what each of your roles is in the center?
Evelina: I’m a lawyer.
Inés: I’m a qualified psychologist.
Soledad: And I’m a social worker. We also have administrative staff here, who help our visitors with problems related to obtaining identity documents and with organizing appointments with us.
Mark: And what’s the history of your center?
Evelina: We opened eight years ago. At first we were based in a shipping container next to a church in another part of the district, but recently we moved here, to a building where there are also other government organizations. There are now three Access to Justice Centers in our district, and one of the others still operates from the shipping container. The other two deal mostly with administrative problems, and we deal with the more complex problems. People can approach any of the three centers, and after we talk to them they are referred to the one most likely to solve their problem.
Soledad: Our center has the most demand. It’s right in the heart of the district and it’s the most well-established.
Mark: And what are the most common problems people come to you with?
Inés: The problems each center deals with depend on its location. Villa 31 is a disadvantaged district of Buenos Aires with serious entrenched poverty. The majority of our cases relate to gender-based violence and family disputes, but we also deal with problems related to social security, disability, education, documentation and criminal justice issues, among others.
Mark: How are Access to Justice Centers different to traditional legal services?
Soledad: The centers provide a multidisciplinary service, and we adopt a broad, integrated perspective when people come to us with problems. We don’t just look at it from one angle. We use the three disciplines of the law, social work and psychology to address an issue holistically. And we accompany people through the process of resolving their problems over the medium- to long-term — some of our visitors come for regular consultations for a year or more.
Inés: Often people will come to us with a legal problem, but when we talk to them it becomes apparent that they also have other problems, for example problems related to not having the right personal documents, or social problems related to housing or money, or psychological issues that result from or aggravate the other difficulties.
Evelina: Having centers in vulnerable districts means that justice is brought to the people. People no longer have to leave the district to access services, which can be expensive or difficult if you have children to look after or a job to do. Now it’s much more convenient — they can walk here. People come here so they can resolve several problems in the same place.
Mark: Do you need specific training to work in these multidisciplinary centers?
Evelina: A lawyer trained in law school has a very different profile to one who works in an Access to Justice Center. When you start to work in the community in a multidisciplinary way, you have to break with the profile you were trained in for many years, and build your own profile that is more suitable for this environment. So it’s more about being motivated to work in a community where you are likely to face different problems to what they taught you in university, and being able to be creative and work collectively to resolve them.
Inés: As a psychologist too, you’re used to treating people in a clinical way, on your own, so you have to adapt to this new way of working. You have to move from seeing a problem purely from a clinical perspective to one that is linked to many other social and legal problems. And you have to realize that if you don’t intervene in this holistic, collective way, it’s difficult to end up with a good result.
One of the benefits of this model is that after having the initial consultation with the visitor, the three of us meet to discuss what would be the best strategy and the best interventions to resolve the problem over the long term. And each of us, with our different backgrounds, has a different way of looking at things.
Mark: As a visitor with a problem, how do I know which of you I need to see? Is there a first point of contact who directs me to the most suitable person?
Inés: Yes, there’s a reception desk where there are people who can identify whether you have other problems that need the attention of a social worker, or a psychologist, or another service provider.
Soledad: We’re well established in the barrio — we’ve been here for more than eight years. So people know that if they have a certain problem they can come to us for help in claiming their rights.
Ines: Often we’ve been recommended to them by other people we’ve dealt with before. So sometimes they ask for us directly.
Mark: And can you give me an example of a case that has required the attention of all three of you?
Soledad: For the last year we’ve been working with a woman who came to Buenos Aires from a province which is 1,300 kilometers away. She was escaping a violent partner, and she came with her two children who are aged four and seven. There was an ongoing criminal case against the man due to the serious injuries he had inflicted on her, as well as a civil case related to parental responsibility for their daughter. These in theory meant that the father could have no contact with his daughter, and that the mother would receive protection, but these measures didn’t work and the aggressor continued to abuse her in front of the children.
Inés: The woman was afraid because the violence was getting worse and the justice system wasn’t protecting her. So finally she decided to flee to Buenos Aires. She came here with no money or clothes, and she had no family here. She went to live in a shared room in a friend’s house. Then somebody recommended that she come to us, and we’ve been seeing her once a week for the past year.
Evelina: We work with her on many aspects of her life. First, from the legal point of view we had to find out from her province the status of the legal case against the partner, and to inform the authorities there that she had come to Buenos Aires. She was terrified that the aggressor would come here and attack her or try to take the children away from her, so we gave her information about her rights and, with the help of local organizations in her province, about how the case was proceeding.
Soledad: But it was obvious that she had social and psychological problems too. From a social point of view, she didn’t have the resources to support her family, and she needed to get her children into school here so that they could be educated and she could have time to find work.
Inés: And psychologically, as well as being afraid of the man she also felt guilty for letting him abuse her in front of the children because she had felt she had to comply with family expectations. After all the stress she’d been through, it was important to empower her to move on, so that she would be mentally strong enough to go on with her life and to go through with the legal process, and would also be able to manage future interpersonal relationships differently to in the past.
Soledad: Each case is different. We don’t have a template — we have to adapt and improvise in response to each case and to how that case develops over time.
Mark: And what help were you able to provide her with?
Inés: As well as advising her on the legal process, we worked with her psychologically so that she would gradually regain confidence and begin to recover from the traumatic experiences she had lived through.
Evelina: We worked with her to sign her up to various social assistance programs so that she could at least attend to her family’s basic necessities. For example, the state has a program for victims of gender-based violence, and we got her onto that. The program requires women to attend college to finish their primary and secondary schooling — she hadn’t finished secondary school so she started studying in a college here.
Soledad: And we organized for her children to attend a nearby school, which they could get to by school bus so that their mother would have more time to look for work and continue her studies. We helped her access a subsidy which pays part of her monthly rent, and another which helped her buy furniture for her accommodation and clothes for her and her children. Via donations we managed to get her a fridge and a cooker so that she could prepare food at home. And we advised her on how to access job centers and training courses to improve her job prospects.
She still has financial problems because she doesn’t have a permanent job, but she is working as a self-employed manicurist, the kids are in school, and she rents a room in the district.
Mark: Can you tell me about the connections between your center and other parts of the legal system?
Evelina: Yes, we have agreements with pro bono legal counsels, so if a person comes to us and their case requires the services of a legal counsel, we put them in touch and then we accompany them as they move through the judicial process. For example, there is a lawyer who works for the National Gender Commission who comes here twice a week. She takes on the cases of women who have been victims of violence and have submitted a civil complaint.
If a visitor doesn’t need a legal counsel, we accompany them through court and help them keep in touch with what’s happening in their case.
Mark: What do you see as the main challenges of working in a center like yours?
Inés: There are always problems with regard to lack of resources to help our visitors, and also there is so much demand for the service that sometimes people can’t get an appointment on the same day they come in. We have to be inventive to overcome these challenges, and to improvise solutions based on the resources we have.
Evelina: Another challenge is that public policies often contradict the reality of life in a district like ours. The law isn’t always appropriate to the cases we come across. Just to give one example, you might have a gender-based violence case with a restraining order that forbids the aggressor from coming within 300 meters of the woman he has abused. But this is a crowded district with houses very close together, and the man might live in the flat upstairs or a few houses away on the same street. And neither he nor the woman has the financial resources to move away. There are many other examples like that, where the law isn’t tailored to the reality of how people live.
Mark: And finally, from a personal view, what do you like most about your work?
Soledad: I like the varied nature of it. It’s very dynamic, each case is different. You don’t know what to expect each day. And you can see the results of your work, when women achieve their own autonomy.
Inés: When they come back and thank us and tell us how it’s gone and how they feel compared to the beginning of the process, it’s very satisfying.
Evelina: The contact with people is beautiful. And you grow personally, too, by learning about the other disciplines. It makes the work much richer.
To read more justice Champions of Change interviews, visit: https://www.justice.sdg16.plus/champions-of-change.