NYSBA extends a helping hand to Georgia’s burgeoning democracy
NYSBA President Richard Lewis was joined by NYSBA Public Interest Program Manager Eunice Bencke, Georgia Legal Aid Director David Simonia, and Georgia Attorney Ilia Khapava.
Working with the US State Department, David Simonia, the director of legal assistance for the nation of Georgia, is in the United States seeking advice on reforming the judicial system in its fledgling democracy.
That’s why he visited the Bar Center in Albany one day last week and met with New York State Bar Association President Richard Lewis. Simonia says the US legal system continues to be a model of democracy for the world and he wants to learn from legal advisors in America. “The US is the best example for us to follow,” he says.
The two leaders sat down for a lengthy discussion on how American attorneys help vulnerable populations here with legal matters and how organizations like Legal Aid are managed. The two share a passion for their involvement in citizenship education. Simonia says Georgia’s judicial system is only 10 years old and has only recently implemented reforms to separate legal aid and defense for those in need from state control, which also controls the law enforcement side of the equation.
“We want to raise awareness of more civic education in the United States,” said Lewis. “We also understand our role in helping these fragile new democracies to grow and learn to instill democratic values in their citizens. We can also show that we continue to strive to improve.”
History and Geography of Georgia
While the history of his homeland and culture stretches back to ancient times, Simonia acknowledges that Georgia’s democratic nation is still in its infancy. The country lies between the Black and Caspian Seas, where the population is divided: 60 percent live in cities and 40 percent in villages, often in remote mountainous regions of the country.
While most of the population is of ethnic origin, there is a minority of Armenians and Azerbaijanis in the country. The country experienced periods of independence flanked by longer periods of dominance by the Byzantine and Persian Empires before being annexed by the Soviet Union in 1936. The Republic of Georgia declared its sovereignty on November 19, 1989 and its independence on April 9, 1991.
The first 20 years of the republic were marked by domestic unrest, corruption and human rights violations. In 2010, the Constitution of Georgia was amended to transfer executive power from the President to a Prime Minister. In 2011, the country introduced American-style jury trials with the help of USAID and the Georgian Bar Association. Reforms continue, and in 2024 Georgia will move from popular elections to an electoral college system for electing its national leaders.
Communicating issues such as separation of powers and the rule of law to citizens is a key part of Simonia’s work as Head of Legal Aid. He spends many hours traveling to remote areas to hold community events. “I hold no fewer than 200 village meetings every year,” he said. This is especially important in mountainous parts of the country where transportation is difficult. Since Simonia took charge of Legal Aid, she has grown the organization from a handful of offices to over 70 offices across the country.
Legal assistance attorneys in Georgia are responsible for representing vulnerable people in a wide range of legal matters, from criminal justice to immigration and family law. Georgian law requires that all custody cases involve a legal aid lawyer who represents the best interests of the child.
“In 2022, 48 percent of cases in Georgia required legal aid representation,” he said. “It’s overwhelming.”
Simonia also says there is a shortage of judges in the country and judges need better legal training.
According to Simonia, the European Union has issued 12 reform recommendations to improve transparency and further expand legal aid across Georgia. Some reforms include better tools for managing law firms and more opportunities for legal training and mentoring for lawyers. Simonia hopes a new electronic case management system, funded in part by USAID, will reduce fraud and inefficiency among private attorneys handling legal aid cases.
Georgian nationals living in New York face their own obstacles, including accessing immigration legal assistance and connecting to social services. Simonia wants to open a referral service in New York where Georgians can find help from lawyers with knowledge of the language and faction region. Lewis offered the support of the New York State Bar Association for such a service and additional contacts to learn more about our state legal aid system.
The two leaders ended the meeting by exchanging gifts and promising to expand their relationship for the betterment of both organizations.