Grant Foreign Nationals Legal Aid via the Legal Aid Department
In 2006, the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid Department ceased to provide legal aid to foreign nationals living in Israel. Thereafter, a controversy emerged in the Ministry of Justice, which was not resolved. This policy has had extremely dire consequences: migrant workers are not entitled to aid in claims against employers who have harmed and exploited them; migrant workers who have fallen ill do not receive aid in claims against insurance companies; mothers do not receive aid in claiming alimony for their children; tenants do not receive aid to sue landlords who have defrauded them; migrants in debt do not receive aid with outstanding payments; and those who have fallen victim to fraud are not represented in lawsuits against those who harm them.
On June 30, 2016, human rights organizations (ACRI, the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, the ASSAF Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel, Kav LaOved – Worker’s Hotline, and the African Refugee Development Center) petitioned the High Court of Justice demanding that the Ministry of Justice’s Legal Aid Department represent foreign nationals. The petition was filed through the Human Rights Clinic at the College of Management Academic Studies’ Law School and the Refugee Rights Clinic at Tel Aviv University’s Faculty of Law.
The petitioners claim that the Legal Aid Law and Legal Aid Regulations define the eligible population entitled to the service as “those who lack the wherewithal,” regardless of their civil status, without excluding its application to those who are not Israeli citizens or permanent residents. They further claimed that the Legal Aid Department’s neglect to provide foreign citizens in Israel with aid severely violates their right of access to the courts, and that such a grave violation of rights may not be executed by virtue of the Legal Aid Director’s internal directive, without legally granting him the authority to do so.
In response to the petition, the Ministry of Justice commenced a process to amend the legislation. The Ministry has proposed a law to provide foreign residents with legal representation in very limited cases, which passed its first reading. Thus, on November 29, 2018, the High Court of Justice dismissed the petition. The ruling deemed that the petitioners' claims will be reserved for them insofar as the legislation is not advanced, and that their claims regarding the constitutionality of the legislation are reserved for them insofar as the legislation is advanced.
In the three and a half years since, the legislation has neither been revisited nor advanced. Nevertheless, legal aid effectively functions in accordance with what is proposed therein—namely, providing very limited legal aid to foreigners—contrary to the provisions of the existing law, which, as noted, does not exclude foreign nationals from receiving aid.
On July 24, 2022, we petitioned the High Court of Justice again, along with the Hotline for Refugees and Migrants, Physicians for Human Rights–Israel, ASSAF, Kav LaOved, and HIAS Israel. Once again, we upheld the importance of the right of access to the courts and the importance of legal aid to foreign residents at large, and especially those employed in the Israeli labor market, often under exploitative conditions. We further claimed that cases in which an administrative authority acts in accordance with its own instructions, contrary to what is stated in primary legislation, violate the rule of law and principle of separation of powers, and that insofar as the law is not changed, the Legal Aid Department must act on the basis of existing law and not per theoretical future legislation.