National Ombudsman offers students training to become legal aid provider

National Ombudsman Reinier van Zutphen plans to introduce free legal assistance for residents of St. Maarten, Curacao and BES-islands. The Ombudsman’s office in The Hague consults on this with the Hague Hoogeschool, partner of the University of Curacao, and will soon offer internships for law students from the islands.

In the Netherlands there is the Juridisch Loket for free legal aid, and there are other agencies for free help with legal problems. “I cannot understand why it is not avail­able on St. Maarten and the other islands,” said National Ombudsman Van Zutphen during his visit to St. Maarten earlier this week. “We do need that legal aid. It can help solve many problems, and it saves the island countries and territories a lot of money.”

With legal problems, it is often the case that the longer you wait it becomes more difficult to solve issues. “It’s so helpful to have an office where you can walk in for ad­vice,” said Van Zutphen. The former judge at the Com­mon Court of Curacao and St. Maarten explained that in many situations legal problems can be solved without the intervention of the judge, and much faster and cheaper than if a lawsuit is filed for this.

In many Dutch municipalities, residents can turn to so­cial counsellors for free information and advice in case of legal problems. They can also get help with filling in forms or writing an objection. The Juridisch Loket, the legal aid shop and the ‘Pax and Customs Administration of the Netherlands also offer free legal help.

On the Caribbean islands, citizens have far less access to legal aid, the National Ombudsman notes. If the costs of a lawyer are too high, and there is no alternative to reach a solution, then it is not possible for the citizen to obtain justice, he said.

The National Ombudsman in The Hague has 200 em­ployees and an annual budget of more than 20 million euros. “I want to make expertise and part of my budget available for the training of a number of law students from the islands to become a legal aid provider,” said Van Zutphen. “They can come to the Netherlands at my ex­pense to do a four to six-week internship at the Ombuds­man’s office in The Hague. My staff will train them, and on their return, in consultation with the Ombudsman on St. Maarten or the Ombudsman on Curacao, the legal aid for residents of the islands can be set up.”

In practice, this means that the new legal aid provider holds consultations, answers questions, and gives advice, whereby matters that are too complicated are passed on to the Ombudsman’s office on the island.

The National Ombudsman proposed to the Faculty of Law of the University of Curacao to offer legal aid as an elective. “I offer to teach that subject, and colleagues of mine are also available,” said Van Zutphen. “This con­cerns general administrative law, mediation, and, among other things, good conduct.”

Van Zutphen hopes in particular for registration of law students who speak Papiamentu. He wants to send them to Bonaire at least once a month for an open consulta­tion in Kralendijk. “If you have a problem, you want to be able to present it in your own language,” says the Na­tional Ombudsman. “For people on the Leeward Islands in Papiamentu, and on the Windwards in English. I need legal aid workers who can explain the Dutch legal texts well and intelligibly in the respective language. And who can help people with filing a notice of objection or getting a permit.”

The legal aid worker does not need to know everything, said Van Zutphen. “But he or she must be able to de­scribe the problem and contact us so that employees from the National Ombudsman’s office in The Hague can help to solve problems of citizens on the islands.”

The National Ombudsman previously noted that it seems to have become more difficult for citizens in the Neth­erlands to obtain justice. In June 2019, the Ombudsman began an inquiry. The Ombudsman saw as an important point of attention that the government should be aware of the diversity of citizens. For example, not everyone will be able to handle a digital information system or be able to get to a physical counter. “The government must offer tailor-made solutions and be accessible to all citizens.”

The Daily Herald.

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