COVID-19 Prepares a New Generation of Digital Lawyers

Friday, June 26, 2020
Mubina working from home

For students working at the Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL)’s free legal clinic, supported by USAID and UNDP through the Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan project, the COVID-19 pandemic has been a chance to discover the upsides of providing digital legal assistance.

“Working during these past three months, we have learned that providing digital services lets us reach far more people who need our help,” says Mubina Salibaeva, a second-year student at the TSUL civil law facility. “People can ask for help from anywhere that has the internet, without having to physically come to us. All while, my classmates and I can work from our homes.”

“The most important thing is that we have been able to keep providing services to vulnerable people, despite the social-distancing rules in place,” adds Mubina.

The free legal clinic piloted at the Tashkent State University of Law (TSUL) is currently being duplicated at regional economic, criminal and administrative courts throughout Uzbekistan to provide free services to as many citizens as possible. COVID-19 has accelerated the urgency to speed up the roll out of remote legal services.

Mubina Salibaeva is one of fifteen young women who dedicate part of their academic year to working at the free legal clinic at TSUL, one of Uzbekistan’s most prominent and respected law universities.

Established in early 2018 with the assistance of the Rule of Law Partnership in Uzbekistan project and the Supreme Court of Uzbekistan, the TSUL clinic provides hands on experience to 50 students under the supervision of university professors.

The clinic operates as both an educational facility, and as a real means of providing people with legal support. For many citizens, the clinic is their only way to seek free legal advice. The success of this public service has helped improve Uzbekistan’s rankings on the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index by 6 points from 2018 to 2020, particularly on the Civil Justice factor and the sub-index of people’s ability to access and afford justice.

In 2019, 540 citizens sought assistance from the legal clinic, compared to 309 in 2018. The number is expected to be substantially higher in 2020. Most cases dealt with by the clinic relate to civil law, with housing and family cases making up 48% of inquiries, but now similar free legal assistance is also being offered at economic, administrative and criminal courts.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the students at the TSUL clinic found themselves not just building their legal abilities, but also learning to engage with clients exclusively through digital means.

“We have answered many interesting queries recently, but one I clearly remember was a request from a pensioner who had a second degree disability, and wanted to know how to access his ‘non puli’, or money for bread, while self-isolating,” shares Mubina.

“It was the first time I heard about such a case. It was doubly challenging to deal with it solely through digital channels. I learned a lot in the process of responding to this query,” adds Mubina.

Some cases can be resolved in one conversation, but complex cases require students to study relevant laws in detail and submit an accurate response, under the guidance of their professors. Sensitive cases not only test legal knowledge, but also soft skills such as empathetic communication.

Having mentored students at the TSUL legal clinic since its inception, Doctor of Law, Guzal Akhmedova, considers the lockdown instituted because of the COVID-19 pandemic to have been one of most useful periods for training the clinicians she supervises.

“What our clinicians have in common is a desire to be of service to people most in need, and a familiarity with digital communications and engagement that my colleagues and I don’t come close to,” says Guzal. “Those two qualities in equal measure are likely to be critical for every future lawyer.”

In its initial days, the TSUL legal clinic trained its clinicians to meet the needs of citizens through face-to-face consultations. In the immediate lead-up to the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the clinic also began offering free digital legal services.

The TSUL legal clinic’s Telegram channel, using Uzbekistan’s most popular messaging app, was launched in November 2019. The channel has been a critical and often the sole means for people to access free legal advice during the pandemic. In the long-run, it will also make accessing free legal help much faster and simpler.

Once the clinicians graduate and start practicing law, knowing how to engage with the public digitally will be just as important as knowing the law back-to-front.

“The telegram channel for our free legal clinic knocks down barriers of time and distance, both educating our students and assisting the public,” adds Guzal. “It’s the future.”

Last updated: June 26, 2020

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