NYSBA Extends a Helping Hand to the Emerging Democracy of Georgia

By Jennifer Andrus

August 25, 2023

NYSBA Extends a Helping Hand to the Emerging Democracy of Georgia


By Jennifer Andrus

NYSBA President Richard Lewis joined by NYSBA Public Interest Program Manager Eunice Bencke, Georgian Director of Legal Aid David Simonia and Georgian attorney Ilia Khapava.

In partnership with the U.S. State Department, David Simonia, the director of Legal Aid for the nation of Georgia, is in the United States seeking advice on how to reform the justice system in his 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 U.S. legal system continues to be a model of Democracy to the world, and he is looking to learn from legal aid practitioners in America. “The U.S. is the best example for us to follow,” he says.

The two leaders sat down for a wide-ranging discussion of how American attorneys help vulnerable populations with legal matters here and how organizations such as Legal Aid are managed. The two share a passion in their commitment to civics education. Simonia says the Georgian justice system is only ten-years-old and only recently implemented reforms to separate legal aid and indigent defense from government control, which also controlled the prosecution side of the equation.

“As we look to increase awareness in the U.S. for more civics education,” Lewis said. “we also understand our role in helping these fragile new democracies to grow and learn to spread democratic values to their citizens. We can also show that we continue to strive to make ourselves better.”

History and Geography of Georgia

While the history of his native land and culture dates to ancient times, Simonia acknowledges that the democratic nation of Georgia is still in its infancy. The country is located between the Black and Caspian seas where the population is split with 60 percent living in cities and 40 percent living in villages, often in remote mountainous regions of the country.

While most of the population is Georgian by ethnicity, the country does have a minority population of Armenians and Azerbaijanis. The nation has seen periods of independence flanked by longer periods of dominance by the Byzantine and Persian empires before it was annexed by the Soviet Union in 1936. The republic of Georgia declared sovereignty on Nov. 19, 1989, and independence on April 9, 1991.

The first 20 years of the republic were marked by internal political strife, corruption, and human rights abuses. In 2010, the Georgian constitution was amended to transfer executive authority from the president to a prime minister. In 2011, with the help of USAID and the Georgian Bar Association, the country adopted jury trials following the American model.  Reforms continue, and in 2024, Georgia will move from a popular vote election to an electoral college system for electing its national leaders. 

Democracy 101

Teaching topics like separation of powers and the rule of law to citizens is a key part of Simonia’s work as director of the legal aid department. He spends long hours traveling to remote areas to hold community events. “I hold no less than 200 village meetings each year,” he said. This is especially important in mountainous parts of the country where transportation is difficult. Since taking over as director of Legal Aid, Simonia has expanded the organization from a handful of offices to over 70 offices across the country.

Georgian Legal Aid attorneys are responsible for representing vulnerable people in a wide range of legal matters from criminal justice to immigration and family law. Georgian law mandates that all child custody cases must include a Legal Aid attorney to represent the interests of the child,

“In 2022, 48 percent of cases in Georgia needed legal aid representation,” he said. “It is overwhelming.”

Simonia also says the country has a shortage of judges and those on the bench need more legal training.

According to Simonia, the European Union has prescribed 12 recommendations for reforms to improve transparency and further expand legal aid across Georgia. Some reforms include better law practice management tools and increased opportunities for continuing legal education and mentorships for attorneys. Simonia hopes a new electronic case management system funded in part by USAID will reduce fraud and inefficiencies among private attorneys assigned to legal aid cases.

Georgian nationals living in New York face their own hurdles, including access to legal help with immigration and connecting to human services. Simonia is looking to start a referral service in New York where Georgians can find help from attorneys with knowledge of the language and the caucus region. Lewis offered assistance from the New York State Bar Association for such a service and additional contacts to learn more about our legal aid system in the state.

The two leaders wrapped up the meeting with an exchange of gifts and promises to build on their relationship to the betterment of both organizations.

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