Preparing young Roma lawyers to advocate for their communities

Diyan Dankov believes that access to justice is a fundamental human right. It is the reason he wanted to become a lawyer; he saw that many fellow Roma people who were subjected to discrimination in Bulgaria lacked access to legal advice. After studying the law, Dankov joined the Legal Incubator to help address this gap.

The Legal Incubator is a project of the Sofia-based SRT grantee Equal Opportunities Initiative (EOI), established in 2006 by Roma rights advocates. The organisation offers free legal assistance and representation for Roma people in cases of alleged discrimination or police mistreatment and undertakes strategic litigation for improvements in housing, health, employment and education. 

As Europe’s largest ethnic minority, Roma people are targets of racist and xenophobic attacks and often denied access to safe housing and clean water, education and employment opportunities, as well as legal advice. The Roma population in Bulgaria is no exception. According to the Council of Europe, they comprise an estimated 10 per cent of the population, with nearly 40 per cent living below the poverty line and 22 per cent illiterate. Discrimination against the Roma, including racist hate speech, is widespread, and officials have reportedly used the pandemic as an excuse to further target them.

In 2019, concerned about the large unmet need for legal advice in the Roma community, EOI set out to train Roma law graduates on how to set up their own practice to help their communities. They teamed up with American Fulbright scholar Fred Rooney, who has helped groups set up similar legal incubators in the US and elsewhere. This is the first such incubator in Eastern Europe. 

Law graduates who come from marginalised Roma communities “don’t have relatives or godparents who can walk them into jobs or opportunities,” Rooney told the legal news service Law 360. “Without the ability to create their own law practices, they often leave law and go into something else,” he said. “They want to practice law and serve their communities, but it’s not always easy without someone there to help.” 

EOI’s Legal Incubator provides graduates and students in their final year with scholarships, training and office space. As they serve low-income clients during the year-long programme, they are guided by mentors who actively participate in their continued practical training.

Participants work on a range of legal cases. Recently, Dankov won a case in which a young Roma man was unjustly fined for reporting loud music at night to the National Emergency Telephone 112. It was a fine his client and his young family could ill afford. 

“People with limited financial capabilities need not only a consultation that suits them financially, but also a humane attitude,” said Dankov. “Members of the Romani community need a lawyer who they can identify with and trust as they navigate some of these difficult legal challenges.” 

Other cases supported by the Incubator include numerous hate speech complaints filed with the National Equality Body against politicians, public figures and social media. The Incubator has also brought several challenges before the Commission for Protection against Discrimination, including on the closure of Roma settlements, ostensibly as a measure to combat the pandemic.

The Incubator has established a network of young Roma lawyers who support, encourage and challenge each other. Some have gone on to establish their own legal practices and others are on their way to doing so. Participants commit to participating in EOI’s youth-led community engagement programme. This is a role that Dankov relishes, paying frequent visits to communities around the country, where they brief community members about their services and offer in-person counselling.

“This programme created a cohort of young and enthusiastic lawyers who embrace the principles of social justice,” said Metodi Dimitrov, who directs EOI. “They are a source of pride for us, for their communities and for themselves.” 

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Diyan Dankov (center) and his fellow lawyers counselled members of the community in the district Hope, Sliven on June 27, 2021.