2016 Pro Bono Awards: Better Policies for Slovakia’s Homeless

Attorneys Pro Bono (Advokáti Pro Bono) has been shortlisted for PILnet’s 2016 European Award for Local Pro Bono Impact for its work towards better policies for the homeless in Slovakia.

Attorneys Pro Bono, a clearinghouse dedicated to help legal professionals achieve their social responsibility duties, brought together law firms and NGOs in an extended project to work on making systemic changes in Slovakia regarding the country’s rising homelessness problem. In particular, the group focused on addressing the issue of debt redress for the target population within the framework of the Insolvency Act, which sets out specific regulations for declaring bankruptcy, restructuring, and debt clearance. Although homelessness encompasses a variety of issues, lawyers prioritized insolvency, due in part to the population’s unwillingness to find employment since, due to some taxes and debt regulations, it would not cover their basic living costs. Often, homeless people in Slovakia turn instead to undeclared work and live in material deprivation. The generational poverty and long-term economic and social exclusion this ensues entails more suffering for the person at stake as well as increased costs to the state for social and health care.

Sweet Dreams, Photo taken by Vratislav Darmek in Bratislava

Man sleeping on a bench in Bratislava, Photo by Vratislav Darmek

NGOs, including OZ Proti Prúdu, and lawyers from various law firms, including bnt attorneys-at-lawSquire Patton Boggs, and White & Case, joined a Pro Bono Working Group put together by the Ministry of Justice of Slovakia. After extensive research and analysis of the Insolvency Act, European and American lawyers made various proposals to amend the law in hopes of creating systemic change. With various NGO perspectives in mind, the lawyers decided that the focus of the law should be largely prevention-based, in part to avoid unnecessary financial obligations and promote legal aid for debt relief to the homeless. Among other things, the lawyers influenced the wording of the law, which is currently in the process of amendment. Under NINA (No Income No Assets) conditions, the law will affect bankruptcy proceedings, debt-repayment calendars, and provision of legal aid for people in material need. The working group also contributed to a proposed amendment of the Public Procurement Act to support disadvantaged groups in accessing work opportunities, as well as on a proposal of a National Strategy to Promote Social Inclusion and Combating Poverty, which omitted homeless people as one of the vulnerable groups.

Through this project, both lawyers and NGOs feel they have formed a lasting working bond and hope that their collaboration will extend past the consultation process. Many of these lawyers are now personally invested in the project and hope to work on other social problems, such as the lack of a social housing system, limited access to health insurance, and lack of employment opportunities for the homeless in Slovakia. The project has also served as inspiration in the opening up of a Legal Homelessness Clinic by Attorneys Pro Bono in March 2016.