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October 14, 2015

Legal Clinic Students Win a Constitutional Court Case, Create Legal Precedent for Self-Representation in Armenia

Sofia Torosyan is a 51 year old Armenian grandmother who takes care of her disabled husband. In May 2014, she sought help from the Gyumri legal clinic, which is supported by the ABA Rule of Law Initiative (ABA ROLI). She told clinic staff that her friend, Teryan, owed her money and wouldn’t pay her back. In June 2009, Teryan came to Sofia with a business proposition, which, she said, would benefit both of them. Teryan convinced Sofia to sell her apartment and give the proceeds to Teryan. Teryan would then import goods from Turkey, sell them in Armenia and pay Sofia back. They would also share the profits. Sofia said that she later learned that Teryan’s story wasn’t true. She said Teryan needed the money to pay back a debt, which she did. Then, Teryan refused to pay Sofia back. She said there was no evidence that she had stolen from Sofia.

Sofia could not afford to hire an attorney. The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) couldn’t help her, either: as fraud is not a civil issue under Armenian law, Sofia’s case did not qualify for the PDO’s services. Sofia turned to the Gyumri legal clinic. Established with ABA ROLI’s support in September 2005, the clinic provides law students with opportunities for practical legal experience as they help those who cannot afford to pay for legal representation. Students at the clinic agreed to help Sofia. 

Soon after, the students realized that the case was not going to be easy. While it is generally difficult to prove fraud, Teryan was also right: Sofia had no proof. Sofia and the legal clinic students reached out to the local prosecutor to see if he would initiate a criminal case against Teryan. This would have made it easier for Sofia to access information about Teryan and her bank account. The prosecutor declined the request. The students successfully appealed the prosecutor’s decision in the First Instance Court. Yet, the prosecutor appealed, and the Court of Appeals ruled in his favor, leading the students to take the case to the next rung in the Armenian justice system: the Cassation Court.

Sofia and the students helping her ran into yet another hurdle. The Cassation Court wouldn’t even consider the case. It said that Armenian citizens needed to be represented by a licensed advocate to apply to the court.

Anahit Stamboltsyan, the legal clinic’s director, said, “[We thought] this was really unfair. The students understood that they have to continue this case; otherwise, they will completely lose faith in themselves and in the legal system in general.” One of the students helping Sofia, Shushanik Magharyan, said, “We decided we would not retreat. We shall prove that even if you don’t have an attorney, it doesn’t mean that you should be deprived of justice.”

Fueled by a desire to prove that justice was within reach even for those who can’t afford legal representation, the students turned to the Constitutional Court. They argued that requiring citizens be represented by a licensed advocate to access justice was unconstitutional. They wanted criminal pro se representation—a practice that allows citizens to advocate on their own behalf without an advocate—to be recognized in Armenia. In its March 27 decision, the Constitutional Court agreed with Sofia and the students, creating a legal precedent for criminal pro se legal representation in Armenia.

“This is a policy change and I can’t believe that the students made it possible,” said Stamboltsyan. “This is not our success only, but also ABA ROLI’s as our long-term partner.”

The students continue to help Sofia in her legal quest to get her money back. As of June, her case was pending the Cassation Court. 

ABA ROLI’s work to support criminal law reform in Armenia is funded by a grant from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs. The opinions, findings and conclusions stated herein are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of the United States Department of State.

To learn more about our work in Armenia, contact the ABA Rule of Law Initiative at [email protected].