Marines test free legal services in An Najaf

23 Aug 2003 | Army Sgt. Mike Sweet

Members of 1st Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, based out of 29 Palms Calif., have established the First Legal Aid Society in Iraq, designed to employ underused lawyers while providing economically disadvantaged Iraqis free legal advice.

Even before the Legal Aid Society opened Aug. 24, dozens of perspective clients lined up under the blaring Iraqi sun for a chance to receive free legal advice under the new program, which is the brain-child of Spc. Robert K. Palmer, a legal affairs specialist with the 432nd Civil Affairs Battalion, a Army Reserve unit based in Green Bay, Wis.

Palmer, who is assigned to the Marine battalion, got the idea while working at the main gate of the office of the battalion's governate support team, the liaison office between the Marines and the province of 1.2 million people.

"People would come up to the gate with a list of problems," said Palmer, who was about to enter his third year of law school at Marquette University before he was mobilized for Operation Iraqi Freedom.  "I realized that these were all legal problems and all they needed was to have somebody just fill out the right paperwork and the problem would be solved."

However, the legal affairs team ascertained that even though most attorneys in An Najaf are paid only five dollars per case, most people could not afford legal counsel, according to Palmer, a resident of South Milwaukee, Wis. Because attorney's fees were so low, many times the clients who could pay the highest bribes to the courts were the ones who won their cases.

"One of the biggest problems we are facing are cases dealing with property laws," Palmer said.  "We are discovering that after the war there was a lot of illegal property transfers and without an attorney, innocent victims could loose their land."

In the beginning, Palmer and the legal team worked long hours correcting problems and advocating for those who were treated unjustly under Saddam Hussein's former regime, but by focusing on day-to-day issues, it took the legal team's focus away from the mission they were sent to Najaf to do: help the Iraqis rebuild the court system

"They would get instant solutions," Palmer said.  "All they would have to do is find a coalition member to write a letter and the problem was solved.  This could have gone on forever."

Palmer teamed with Ali Kahdem Al-Sheibani, the law professor from Babylon University in Al Hillah, who had led an investigation of into allegations that eventually led to the removal of the former governor of Najaf. Together, the new legal aid society was born.

"I hired him and he was responsible for picking his own people," Palmer said.  "This is their future and it is up to them to get their system working."

The day before the official opening of the clinic, located in a newly renovated building that will house the Najaf Legal Aid Society, 20 young lawyers -- both men and woman -- walked past a small group of people waiting in line.

"I selected these people because they are all very clever," said Al-Sheibani. "Also since they are young, they are not as cynical and more willing to help people with problems."

The first month will be a test for Legal Aid Society of Najaf, according to Al-Sheibani.  He said if it doesn't produce good results, the program might not get further support from the coalition.  At their first day of work, he lays down the law as far as how the legal counselors of the people will work.

"If we do not have any clients in line here, then we will go down to the jail." Al-Sheibani. "We will always be able to find someone who needs a lawyer there."  

The legal aid clinic will have the ability to deal with all types of legal issues, according to Al-Sheibani.  He sees his people mostly helping with simple marriage and divorce contracts and some criminal cases, but he also feels confident that his team of lawyers will be able to handle civil lawsuits as well.

"This is something we never had in Najaf," said Raba Al-Kssar, one of them new members of the Najaf Legal Aid Society. "In the past nobody helped the poor people of Najaf."

Al-Kssar, who before joining the Legal Aid Society worked property and family law in the private sector for seven years, sees herself as an advocate for women who had no one to turn to for help in the past. Although she will be a friendly ear to the women who come in, she sees herself as more of a problem solver than a lawyer.

"When a wife and husband come in with quarrels," Al-Kssar said, "I want to help them find a solution outside the court."

No matter who comes through the front door of the Legal Aid Society, the team of young lawyers will be eager and ready to help them.

"This is a new idea," said Al-Kssar.  "I wanted to be part of this experiment."