Region Eastern Europe and Central Asia

National Report

Summary of Contents


Bulgaria is unitary state with a parliamentary form of government. Between 1944 and 1989 the country was under a Communist rule. Since 1992 the country has been a member of the Council of Europe and since 2007 has been a member of the European Union.

The population of the country as of December 31, 2018 is 7 million people. The share of women is 51.5%. In the last 35 years there is a pronounced trend of demographic aging of the population: the relative share of people aged 15 or less is declining and the relative share of people aged 65+ is on the rise. In the last general population census (2011) people aged 15 or less represented 13.2% of the population, while people aged 65+ were 18.5%.

As of 2011 about 60% of the population identified as Christian Orthodox, about 20% declined to answer and 8% identified as Muslims (almost exclusively Sunni).

The predominant share of the population (85%) is of Bulgarian ethnicity. According to the 2011 census results there are two distinct ethnic minorities: 8.8% of the respondent self-identified as ethnic Turks (traditionally Sunni Muslims, speaking Turkish as a mother tongue) and 4.9% of the population self-identified as ethnic Roma (speaking Roma as a mother tongue, some of them are Christian, some are Sunni Muslims). Both ethnic minorities are native to the country. Bulgaria is the only EU member state with a native Muslim minority. There is a very small number of immigrants residing in the country; these are mostly non-EU citizens with the Russians predominating amongst them.

In the years between 2014 and 2019 there were positive trends for the national economy: the overall GDP was on the rise and the unemployment was declining. Yet as of 2019 Bulgaria remains the poorest EU member state. In 2018 about 32% of the population (or roughly 2.3 million) lived at risk of poverty and social exclusion. The poverty line for 2018 was established by the National statistical institute (NSI) to be 4,213 BGN annual income (about 2,435 USD) for a single-member household and 8,848 BGN (about 5,114 USD) for a household of two adults and two children under 14 years of age. In 2018 about 22% of the population lived below this poverty line[1].

The representatives of the Roma minority are more likely to be affected by illiteracy, unemployment and poverty compared to the Turk minority and to the Bulgarian majority. As of 2011 the share of illiterates amongst the Roma was 11.8%, compared to 0.5% amongst the ethnic Bulgarians and 4.7% amongst the ethnic Turks. About 23% of the Roma children aged 7 to 15 were not enrolled in school, compared to 12% of the Turk children and 5.6% of the Bulgarian children[2].

In 2018 almost 68% of the ethnic Roma lived below the poverty line, compared to 22% of the average population, or 15.6% of the ethnic Bulgarians and 31.6% amongst the ethnic Turks[3].

From administrative point of view the territory of the country is divided into 265 municipalities organized in 28 provinces. During Communist rule the population was relatively evenly distributed amongst the provinces. After 1989 the country witnessed intensive migration, both internal and external. As a result nowadays the population of the country is very unevenly distributed amongst the provinces and municipalities: in 2018 about 17.5% of the country population lives in the capital city of Sofia and its neighbourhood. About 40% of the population is concentrated in only 9 municipalities each with population of above 100,000. Currently there are 60 municipalities with a population of less than 6,000 and together they account for 3% of the total population. As of 2018 about 74% of the population is urban, while 26% is rural. Amongst the rural population the relative share of elderly people, ethnic Roma and Turks is higher compared to the urban areas.

In spite of these demographic trends, the number and the structure of the public administration (including the court system) remained relatively unchanged compared to the period of Communist rule prior to 1989. As a result in districts the administration and the courts have to serve a small number of people and business, while in other areas (the capital and several big cities) they are routinely overburdened.

Chart 01. GDP of Bulgaria in the last 10 years, in current US dollars (billions)

Key data from UNDP, Human Development Indices and Indicators (2018, Statistical Update): GNI (PPP, 2017) is 18.740 USD; Gini coefficient (2017) is 37.4; Life expectancy at birth (2017) is 74.9; Expected years of schooling (2017) is 14.8; Mean years of schooling (2017) is 11.8; HDI (2017) is 0.813.


3.1. Criminal Procedure

Criminal procedure[1] in Bulgaria is regulated by the PPC, with some norms pertaining to police detention included in the Ministry of the Interior Act[2]. According to art.23 of the PPC a penal procedure is initiated either by the police/the investigator (with the first action of investigation) or by the prosecutor, when the necessary legal requirements are met (there is a legal reason and sufficient data that an offence has been committed). The prosecutor controls and monitors the legality in the acts of the authorities conducting the pre-trial phase of the procedure. He/she has also the power to conduct an investigation by himself or to transfer an investigation from the police to an investigator.

According to art. 191 of the PPC in all criminal cases of general nature (i.e. that are prosecuted based on a motion of the prosecutor) there should be a formal pre-trial procedure. It consists of two stages: investigation and actions of the prosecutor after the investigation is completed. The pre-trail phase develops under the direction and supervision of the prosecutor (art. 196 of the PPC). When there are enough evidence that a specific person has committed the offence he/she is formally instituted as a defendant through a separate decree of the investigative authority. Once the investigating authority is convinced that all relevant evidence is collected, the case is reported to the court (art. 227 of the PPC) and the interested parties (the defendant, the victims etc.) get acquainted with the collected material in the case file. Each one of the interested parties can make additional requests, notes and objections to the evidence that is already collected and they should be reflected in the records of the pre-trial phase.

The legally established period for investigation is two months from the date of its institution (art. 234 of the PPC); under specific circumstances this period may be extended by a superior prosecutor. After the completion of the investigation the prosecutor has several options: he/she may decide to discontinue the penal procedure, to suspend the penal procedure, to submit to the court a motion for exemption of criminal liability, for plea bargaining or an act of indictment (art. 242 of the PPC).

Detention may be ordered either by the police (for up to 24 hours) or by the prosecutor (for up to 72 hours). Detention in custody for longer period (up to 1 year maximum) may only be imposed in official pre-trial procedure by a court as a restraining measure. According to art. 63 of the PPC detention in custody may be imposed as a restraining measure only if several circumstances are established: there is a reasonable suspicion that the defendant has committed an offence punishable by deprivation of liberty and there is evidence that he/she may escape or commit another crime.

The Bulgarian criminal legal system is to a large extend compliant with rule of law and once the criminal procedure initiated, in most of the cases it develops in line with international due process standards. A major problem is the lack of proper investigation of crimes committed by high-level politicians, corruption and mafia style crimes, but the reasons behind it are structural in nature. They are related to the constitutional status of independence of the judges and prosecutors and do not concern the regulation of the criminal procedure per se. With this respect since 2007 Bulgaria and Romania were the only two EU member states where reforms in the national judiciaries and the fight against corruption and organized crime have been subject to monitoring by the European Commission though a Cooperation and verification mechanism[3] (Bulg., Механизъм за сътрудничество и проверка).

As of 2019 Bulgaria is still under enhanced supervision by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe for failure to execute ECHR judgments that concern the following shortcomings of the national criminal justice:

  • Lack of effective investigation into various criminal offences (murders, injuries, rapes, unlawful confinement, incitement to prostitution etc.);
  • Lack of effective investigations into the actions of police or other security forces resulting in death, torture, ill-treatment, excessive use of force, or lack of medical assistance in due time, occurring on arrest, in police detention or in penitentiary facilities;
  • Ineffectiveness of the investigation into the murder, in 2002, of a high-ranking prosecutor on account of the lack of guarantees in Bulgarian law for the independence of criminal investigation[4].

3.2. Civil Procedure

The civil procedure in Bulgaria is regulated by the CPC. The main steps of the 1st instance procedure include: submission of a statement of claim to the court; service of the statement of claim to the defendant; submission of a response to the statement of claim; sorting out the preliminary questions – the court renders a ruling on the formal admissibility of the statement of claim and on admission of the evidences; court hearing for collecting evidence (in one or several court sessions, depending on the evidences) and finally the court renders the judgement.

The court is obliged to inform the parties about the possibility of mediation and to invite them to agree amicably. According to art. 145, al.3 of the CPC in the first session of the court after the preliminary questions were sorted out, the court invites the parties to the dispute to reach an agreement and explains to them what would be the consequences of it. If the parties are not inclined to reach an agreement, the court is registering this in the court record and proceeds with the collection of evidence. After the completion of the court hearings for collection of evidences, the court has to invite the parties to reach an agreement again. In case they decline, the oral arguments of the parties begin (art. 149, al.1 of the CPC).

Similar legal requirement for the court to invite the parties to agree amicably is included in the administrative procedure and in the divorce procedure in the Family Law Code[5] (art.49, al.2). The parties to a divorce procedure can also choose no-fault divorce as regulated by art. 50 and fallowing of the Family Law Code.

The judge’s role in the civil procedure is active (art. 7 of the CPC). He/ she both performs ex officio all necessary steps to move the procedure further and controls whether the parties perform theirs respectively. The judge may independently summon parties and/or expert witnesses.

With respect to litigants who are unable to afford a lawyer, the judge ought to inform him/her about the right to legal aid. The judge also has to explain to the litigant the obligations with respect to the legal aid provided, as well as about the legal consequences if he/she does not abide by their obligations (art. 99 of the CPC).

As with respect to the criminal legal system, the Bulgarian civil legal system is to a very large extend compliant with the rule of law and in most of the cases due process is respected. Concerns are related to the independence of the judiciary from political and other undue influence that are connected to structural deficiencies more than to the legal framework of the civil procedure.

3.3. Alternative Dispute Resolution

In Bulgaria ADR is available in the form of mediation, regulated by a special Law on Mediation[6] (Bulg., Закон за медиацията). It defines the mediation as a voluntary and confidential procedure that may be applied in civil, trade, labour, family or administrative law disputes between natural persons and legal entities alike. It is also applicable in very limited number of criminal cases.

The mediation procedure is initiated by the parties to a dispute. The courts or other competent state authorities can direct the parties to mediation, but the parties cannot be obliged to do so. The criteria for becoming a mediator and a list of mediators is approved by the Ministry of Justice. The mediators can practice collectively either as a firm or as a non-for-profit legal entity. Since 2009 there is a working mediation centre with the Sofia Regional Court (Bulg., Център да спогодби и медиация към Софийски районен съд) and in couple of other big towns. In most of the towns where there are 1st instance courts however there are no working mediation centres for the judges to direct people to and the mediation as an instrument is virtually unknown for litigants outside of the big towns.

In Bulgaria there is no compulsory diversion of disputes to dispute resolution mechanisms outside the courts. In 2019 the Supreme Judicial Council and the Ministry of Justice each set a working group to examine potential introduction of compulsory mediation with respect to specific disputes, but the results of their work are not known yet[7].

The major policy drivers behind the legislative amendments to introduce the mediation in Bulgaria as an ADR were linked on one hand with the conditionality of the EU membership and the development of the EU law in this area and on the other, with the activity of small group of judges through the mediation centre with the Sofia Regional Court.

3.4. Simplification of law and by-passing legal process

In Bulgaria lately there were several amendments to the laws that were aimed at reducing the cost and time of legal proceedings but they were not necessarily related to the simplification of the laws and by-passing the legal process.

Most notable with this respect are amendment to the CPC introduced in 2018 which altered the rules for establishing the jurisdiction in selected types of cases. By rule, when there is a claim against a legal entity it has to be submitted and considered by the court where the headquarters of the legal entity are. This rule is one of the reasons for the enormous workload of Sofia courts, since a disproportionate number of business have their headquarters in Sofia. The 2018 amendments to the CPC stipulate that the cases for consumer protection and the ones against insurance companies (including car insurance companies) are to be considered by the court where the accident happened or where the last address of the insured person was[8]. According to an expert this led to 34% reduction of the workload of the Sofia City Court of law[9].

In 2011 two pilot judgments of the ECHR required Bulgaria to introduce remedies to deal with unreasonably long criminal proceedings and a compensatory remedy in respect of unreasonably long criminal, civil and administrative proceedings[10]. In 2012 a complex package of legal amendments set up a national mechanism for compensation of the victims in the case of excessive length of the criminal, civil or administrative proceedings[11]. On the long run it is quite likely that this step will reduce the number of cases against Bulgaria in the ECHR and will speed up the proceedings on national level.


According to art. 6 of the Bulgarian Constitution all persons are born free and equal in dignity and rights. All persons are equal before the law. There shall be no privileges or restrictions of rights on the grounds of race, national or social origin, ethnic self-identification, sex, religion, education, opinion, political affiliation, personal or social status or property status.

According to art. 30, al.4 everyone shall be entitled to legal counsel from the moment of detention or from the moment of being charged (with a crime, in case he/ she is not detained already). The Constitution also states that everyone shall be entitled to meet his legal counsel in private. The confidentiality of such communication shall be inviolable (art.30, al.5).

The right to a fair trial is not specifically stated in the Constitution, but the rule of law is recognized as a constitutional principle in art.4 and this also implies that people are entitled to fair trial.

Since 1992 Bulgaria has been a member state of the Council of Europe and bound to apply the ECHR. In art. 6 and art.13 ECHR guarantees access to justice, right to a fair trial and right to legal aid. Since 2007 Bulgaria is also a member state of the EU. When implementing the EU law the national institutions are also bound by the Charter of Fundamental Rights that also stipulates the right to a fair trial (art.47). With respect to criminal proceedings Bulgarian authorities are bound to apply also Directive 2013/48/EU on the right of access to a lawyer[1] and Directive (EU) 2016/1919 on legal aid[2].

In Bulgaria there is a political commitment to improve access to justice. From this perspective there are two policy documents – one general and one specific. The general policy document is the Updated Strategy for Sustaining the Reform in the Judiciary (2015-2022)[3]. Among the general goals of the reform are listed ensuring the implementation of the right to a fair trial and effective protection of human rights. The Updated Strategy also plans for measures to evaluate and redistribute more fairly the workload between courts and to promote e-justice (including the provision of electronic services by the Ministry of Justice and the courts, publishing court decisions and information about pending cases on the web sites of the courts, electronic communications between the courts and the litigants and between the courts and the state administration).

Strategic goal 5 of the Updated Strategy is defined as safeguarding the rule of law, the access of citizens to justice and (promoting a) humanistic approach in the administration of justice. One of the specific measures under this strategic goal is to evaluate the structure of the courts from the point of view of effective guarantees of the right of access to justice (measure 5.1.2).

Under the same strategic goal there is Specific objective 4: Development of the Legal aid system with three measures: 5.4.1. Improvement of the systems for monitoring and evaluation of the quality of the state guaranteed legal aid – improving the selection of the legal aid lawyers, fostering their specialisation and professional qualification; 5.4.2. Improving the access to primary legal aid; 5.4.3. Popularisation of the legal aid system among the citizens.

On the basis of this general policy document, in 2016 the National Legal Aid Bureau (NLAB) adopted its own specific policy document: Updated Strategy for the Development of the NLAB where the above mentioned measures are operationalised[4].

The availability of these two policy documents is important because they allow the NLAB to secure funding for specific projects aimed at strengthening its administrative capacity and developing new services. Since 2014 the NLAB implemented at least three important projects with funding from the Financial Mechanism of the European Economic Area/ Norwegian Financial Mechanism and the EU Structural Funds (Operation Program Administrative Capacity).

The availability of political commitment to equal access to justice and a fair trial is more uncertain. There is no available research on how different minority groups interact with the justice system and what the specific obstacles to access to justice for each one of them are. This topic rarely appears in the media or in the parliamentary debates. Furthermore, in the current Parliament there are three Bulgarian nationalistic political parties whose MPs actively use xenophobe and anti-Gypsy rhetoric, effectively blocking every effort to promote policies for equal access to justice.

It is not quite certain which government body is responsible for the access to justice policy. The above mentioned Updated Strategy for reform of the judiciary was developed by the Ministry of Justice and received formal endorsement by the Supreme Judicial Council and by the Parliament. Any further step in its implementation needs also careful planning and cooperation between these three institutions.

The Bulgarian law assigns specific responsibility only for the legal aid policy, which is a much more narrow field compared to access to justice policy. According to art.6, al.1 of the Legal aid act (LAA)[5] (Bulg., Закон за правната помощ) the Minister of Justice is responsible for the legal aid policy, while the provision of legal aid is organized by the NLAB and the local bar councils. In practice, the legal aid policy is driven primarily by the initiative of the NLAB and in cooperation with the Supreme Bar Council, since it is the later that holds the majority seats in the NLAB.

As stated above the specific problems that the different minorities face in their interactions with the justice system are not subject of thorough research nor are visible part of the scientific, media or political discourse.

To the extend there are at all some research publications in this area, they were carried out by non-for-profit organisations through projects funded ad hoc by foreign donors and were providing only snapshots to specific problems rather than studying the field systematically. In 2003 the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee published the results of the first study on the access to justice on national level that was studying access to defence counsel in criminal cases. It revealed that 40% of the convicted at the time had not been represented by a lawyer at trial. It also noted that “the majority of those convicted without a lawyer were Roma, even though the majority of the prisoners surveyed were ethnically Bulgarian”[6].

The NLAB has conducted only one survey so far of the legal needs of the citizens (2017, Nationally Representative Survey of the Need for Legal Aid in Bulgaria – Bulg., Национално-представително изследване на нуждата от правна помощ в България и качествени проучвания). It showed that the incidence of legal problems amongst the Roma was much higher than the average for the country, while amongst the Turkish ethnic group was lower than the average; 38% of the Roma respondents had a legal problem in the last two years prior to the survey (2015-2017), compared to 27% in average; Roma were also less inclined to seek assistance from a lawyer in case of a legal problem and for them the lack of financial means and the lack of information were more significant obstacles for access to a lawyer compared to the general population.

In 2018 a study of Open Society Institute – Sofia (OSI-S) on the access to legal aid in the pre-trail phase of criminal proceedings tried to establish the ethnic background of the defendants in criminal cases but was unable to find reliable data. Interviews with lawyers showed that Roma were overrepresented amongst the defendants in criminal cases and amongst the clients of the legal aid system. According to the interviews Roma were also more likely to receive custodial remand measures since they were more frequently unemployed compared to the majority of the population. But the review of the documents available in the NLAB did not manage to produce precise data to back these findings: in many cases the ethnic origin of the defendant was not registered in the documents of the criminal proceedings, or when it was, it was mentioned that the defendants were Bulgarians because many of the Roma chose to identify as such[7].

The time-frame of the OSI-S’s study coincided with the influx of immigrants in the country, most of whom crossed Bulgaria as a transit way to go from the Middle East to Western Europe. In Bulgaria the illegal border crossing is a crime and in 2015 it was the third most punished crime in the country (after theft and driving in violation of the law). In 2015 according to the OSI-S’s study 11% of the clients of the legal aid system in pre-trial criminal cases were foreign citizens and 16% of the clients of the legal aid system did not understand Bulgarian language. Interviews with lawyers showed that the lack of adequate interpretation from the languages spoken by the migrants was a problem at the time and an obstacle of their access to justice[8].

The NLAB does not have budget available for securing interpretation for the lawyers – clients’ communication nor a legal ground to cover such expenses made by the lawyers. When needed, the interpretation is secured by interpreters paid for by the police and not always adequate to the languages spoken by the migrants[9].


6.1. Overview of judicial costs for litigants

The litigants in civil cases are required to pay a State fee and to cover the costs related to the proceedings (art. 71 of the CPC). The State fee may be simple or proportionate and depends on the material interest involved. The State fee is determined by a normative Tariff adopted by the Government[1] (Bulg., Тарифа №1 към Закона за държавните такси за таксите, събирани от съдилищата, прокуратурата, следствените служби и министерството на правосъдието).

The State fee has to be paid prior to initiating the proceedings. The decision of the court to launch civil procedure is conditioned by the payment of the State fee. In the most common cases the state fee is 4% of the material interest involved. In addition, throughout the proceedings the parties have to pay for costs that incur, most frequently related to the expert witnesses and covering the costs of different tests etc. Each of the parties shall depose in advance in the court the sum covering the expenses for the procedure it has required. At the end of the proceedings, the State fee and the expenses (including the remuneration of the lawyers) are to be paid by the litigant proportionately to the recognized part of the claim (art. 78 of the CPC). In case the parties settle the dispute voluntarily after the beginning of the court proceedings, they are entitled to recover half of the State fee that is already paid.

6.2. Exemption from judicial costs

The grounds for exemption from payment of State fee and expenses are regulated by art. 83 of the CPC. Only natural person can be exempted from judicial costs; the prosecutors and some legal entities such as the National Red Cross in specific cases can also be exempt. The claimant and the defendant can both apply for exemption. Exempt from judicial costs by statutory regulation are people who are workers, employees and members of cooperatives when they bring to court labour law disputes with their employers; the claimants who are seeking spousal/ child support or litigants who are claiming tort from crime, when the perpetrator has been already convicted in a criminal procedure.

Based on al.2 of the art. 83 of the CPC if a litigant does not have enough resources to pay for the State fee and court expenses, the court may grant exemption. In this case the litigant has to specifically apply for exemption and provide evidence about his/her financial status. When deciding on the application, the court is taking into consideration not only the income and property status of the applicant, but also the family and health status, employment, age and other ascertained circumstances. The application for granting legal aid in those cases is separate and does not automatically exam the legal aid recipient from paying the State fee and court expenses.

In case the litigant who was exempt from the initial payment of State fee and court expenses, lost the case, he/she is obliged to pay for the State fee and court expenses already paid for by the other party. Expenses in this case may also include the legal aid granted to the aided litigant and the expenses the other party made to pay a contractual lawyer.

6.3. Mechanisms to reduce costs by variations to courts and procedures

The classic criminal and civil legal procedures are all together not that expensive for people in Bulgaria and there is no need for reducing cost further. As mentioned above in section 6.2 the labour law disputes in Bulgaria are by statutory regulation exempt from judicial expenses (art.83 of the CPC) for the employed. Based on the Tariff No 1 to the Law on the State Fees (quoted above in part 6.1), the State fee in administrative law cases is simple (i.e. does not depend on the size of the material interest involved) and for both natural and legal persons is quite low (10 BGN for natural persons and 50 BGN for most of the legal persons)[2]. The State fee for criminal cases that are brought to court by private prosecution is also simple and quite low (12 BGN).


Not applicable to Bulgaria’s legal system


The broadband internet coverage in Bulgaria in 2018 was 96%, compared to EU average of 97%. Bulgaria was rated 19th according to the Digital Economy and Society Index. The spread of fixed broadband internet however is only 58% compared to an EU average of 77%, so in this respect Bulgaria performs worst among all the EU member states[1].

According to the share of individuals using internet for interacting with public authorities Bulgaria also performs way below the EU average. In 2019 only 22% of the Bulgarian population used internet to interact with public authorities, only 17% used internet to obtain information from public authorities, only 9% were downloading and sending official forms via internet.[2]

Data about the number of legal practitioners/ non-for-profit providers using technology for business purposes is not available in public documents.

Prior to 2017 the communication between the NLAB and the local bar councils was based on paper and there was only partial electronic communication through software owned by the local bar councils (they use different brands of commercially available software). As of 2017 amendments were introduced to the LAA and the NLAB has developed unified software and informational system (art.8a of the LLA) that allows for electronic communication between the solo practitioners who are providing legal aid, the local bar councils and the NLAB. The local bar councils were allowed 2 years to adapt to the system and since 2019 they are legally bound to use only this system for communications with the NLAB and reporting about the legal aid granted.

The NLAB also linked its own electronic system to the inter-agency system for data transfers (REGIX) and obtained the support of the Supreme Judicial Council for linking electronically the informational system of the courts with the electronic systems of the local bar councils. Since 2018 based on art.22, al.4 of the LLA the NLAB employees verify the financial and the property status of the applicants for primary legal aid via electronic communication with the respective state agency. These measures reduced the administrative burden of the system for the legal aid lawyers and the local bar councils and reduced the waiting time for authorisation of the granting of primary legal aid for the potential clients.


Since 1992, as a member state to the Council of Europe, Bulgaria implemented important reforms in the national justice system in order to bring it in line with the standard of the ECHR and the development of the case law of the ECtHR. Between 1999 and 2005 when Bulgaria concluded its negotiations for EU membership, improving access to justice was part of the EU accession agenda. During this time the LAA was adopted, together with new PPC and CPC, and the changes in the national legislation were complimented by a considerable EU technical assistance provided through the PHARE program.

Since 2007, as an EU member state Bulgaria participates in the judicial cooperation in civil and criminal matters, and since 2009 in the implementation of the EU Roadmap for strengthening procedural rights of suspected or accused persons in criminal proceedings.

Improving human rights and access to justice for vulnerable social groups was an important goal of the national Open Society Foundation since the late 90es (in 2004 renamed Open Society Institute – Sofia, http://osis.bg). Independently and in partnership with the Open Society Justice Initiative, the Foundation implemented number of projects in Bulgaria in the last 20 years, including the first empirical legal studies in the access to justice on national level, piloting an alternative organisation of the provision of legal aid in the town of Veliko Tarnovo, the first sociological study in the legal problems of the population, monitoring the effective implementation of human rights in police custody etc.

In 2016 – 2019 the Bulgarian Helsinki Committee and Open Society Institute – Sofia participated in the implementation of EU funded projects under the Justice program of the EU aimed at improving access to justice for suspects and accused persons in criminal proceedings. This helped strengthening the capacity of the Bulgarian specialized non-for-profit organisations and the exchange of good practices between them and specialized organizations in other EU member states.


The recent reform of the Bulgarian legal aid system contains important lessons for both the positive and the negative side of the conditionality related to the EU accession. On the positive side, the Bulgarian case showed that the political pressure coming from outside was effective in producing improvements in the access to justice system on national level through the confluence of three factors: the ECHR provided the legal standards for the national justice system, the prospects for EU membership served as a political driver for reform and the technical assistance from the EU provided capital investments and training of legal professionals.

On the negative side, after the EU accession the reform process lost pace and intensity; because promoting access to justice depended on various national institutional actors (the Ministry of Justice, the Supreme Judicial Council, the bar councils and the NLAB) none of them emerged as internal reform engine. Besides, the EU accession negotiations were less focused on achieving rule of law as a result, and more on checking boxes with adopting new legislation and setting new institutions. In such a way the infrastructure of the national legal aid system was established together with the necessary procedural safeguards for suspects and defendants, but the legal aid system remained unknown and difficult to access for indigent people.

From this perspective, the Bulgarian legal aid system is still struggling with five major challenges:

  • The first one is the low public trust in the justice system and in the legal professionals. Psychological factors left aside, it is striking that the administrative map of the country for quite some time now is in disconnect with the demographic one. Large portions of disadvantaged population (ethnic minorities, elderly, residents of villages and remote towns) simply lack physical access to legal institutions and to legal professionals.
  • The second challenge is that legal aid granted in the form of legal representation before civil or criminal courts is actually not free even for the indigent client. The cases of legal aid granted are in practice reduced to the cases of mandatory defence in criminal proceedings where the defendant is not allowed to waive his right to legal aid. It is quite likely that in many criminal cases, when explained that they have to repay back the legal aid expenses to the NLAB, the indigent suspects/defendants chose to waive their right to legal aid. Moreover recent sociological research on the incidence of legal problems demonstrates that large groups of indigent people experience civil, administrative and family law problems which remain unsolved. Hence there is an important demand for legal aid services that the current organisation of the national legal aid system is unable to address and satisfy.
  • The institutional reaction to the performance of legal aid lawyers that was superficial and perfunctory is very limited. Most of the legal aid clients are not in the position to know what standards they can expect from their lawyer and complaints for malpractice or incompetent services are extremely rare. Hence the need for the bar councils and the NLAB to take a proactive stance in promoting and monitoring the quality of the service provided.
  • The availability of information and knowledge is also a major challenge to the access to justice. It is manifested on one hand through the lack of public legal education, unavailability of reliable legal information for citizens and information as to how to access the legal aid system. But there is a policy problem as well, because further policy changes depend on the availability of systematic research in the area of legal needs of indigent people, empirical legal studies, studies on the effectiveness and efficiency of justice. For the time being on national level these are scarce if not lacking entirely.
  • The budget of the Ministry of Justice and the one of the NLAB are systematically short of capital investment funds, and hence both institutions lack instruments to stimulate innovations and for the development and adoption of new technological solutions.


[1] NSI, 2019 Indicators for poverty and social inclusion by districts (Bulg., НСИ, Индикатори за бедност и социално включване по области), available in Bulgarian at www.nsi.bg

[2] NSI, 2011 General Population Census Data, available in Bulgarian at www.nsi.bg

[3] NSI, Indicators for Poverty and Social Inclusion in 2018, p.4, available in Bulgarian at www.nsi.bg

[4] All data about the workload of the courts is taken from Report for the Implementation of the Law and the Activity of the Courts in 2018, Attachment 1 – Statistical Data about the Courts in 2018, (Bulg., Доклад за прилагането на закона и за дейността на съдилищата през 2018, Приложение 1 – Статистически таблици за съдилищата), available in Bulgarian at www.vks.bg The percentage shares are calculated by the author. The data reflects the actual workload of the judges who are employed by the courts and showed at work. The workload calculated based on the budgeted positions for judges is a little less impressive, since in the system at any given moment there are some vacancies or judges who don’t show at work because of illness, parental leave etc.

[5] The Constitution was promulgated in State Gazette No56/13.07.1991.

[6] Promulgated in State Gazette No 55/ 25.06.2004.

[7] Benatov, V. Collective legal practice in Bulgaria, Advokatski pregled, 2004, No 10-11 (Bulg., Бенатов, В. Съвместното упражняване на адвокатската професия в България, сп. Адвокатски преглед, 2004, №10-11.)

[8] The data about the number of the lawyers here and below are taken from the annual report of the Supreme bar council for 2018, approved by the Supreme bar council with its decision No1590/18.01.2019 (Bulg., Отчет за дейността на Висшия адвокатски съвет за периода 1.01.2018 – 31.12.2018 г., приет с решение на Висшия адвокатски съвет №1590/18.01.2019 г.), available in Bulgarian at www.vas.bg

[9] Regulation No 1/ 9 July 2004 of the Supreme bar council about the minimal size of the lawyers’ fees, promulgated in State Gazette No 64/23.07.2004, last amended State Gazette No 84/25.10.2016 (Bulg., Наредба №1/9 юли 2004 г. за минималните размери на адвокатските възнаграждения, издадена от Висшия адвокатски съвет, публикувана в ДВ №64/23.07.2004 г., посл. изм. ДВ №84/25.10.2016г.

[10] Promulgated in State Gazette No83/18.10.2005.

[11] Promulgated in State Gazette No64/07.08.2007.

[12] CEPEJ, European judicial systems. Efficiency and quality of justice, CEPEJ Studies No 26, 2018 edition (2016 data).

[13] European Commission, 2019 EU Justice Scoreboard, Table: Perceived independence of courts and judges among the general public.

[14] PACE, Resolution 2296 (2019) on post-monitoring dialogue with Bulgaria.

[15] For more detailed description of the national criminal justice system and analysis of the main reforms during EU accession see Grozev, Y. (2012) Chapter 3.Bulgaria in Cape, E., Namoradze, Z. Effective Criminal Defence in Eastern Europe, Soros Foundation – Moldova, p.93-151. Note that here we use the abbreviation “PPC” for the Penal Procedure Code and not “CPC” as Grozev does in his text.

[16] Promulgated in State Gazette No53/27.06.2014.

[17] Since 2007 the European Commission produces annual CVM reports for both countries with observations and recommendations, see https://ec.europa.eu/info/policies/justice-and-fundamental-rights/upholding-rule-law/rule-law/assistance-bulgaria-and-romania-under-cvm/cooperation-and-verification-mechanism-bulgaria-and-romania_en

[18] For enumeration of the specific ECHR jurisprudence pertaining to each issue see Council of Europe, Department for the Execution of Judgements of the ECHR, Country Factsheet – Bulgaria, last update 17.12.2019.

[19] Bulg., Семеен кодекс. Promulgated in State Gazette No 47/23.06.2009.

[20] Promulgated in State Gazette No110/17.12.2004, last amendment promulgated in State Gazette No27/01.04.2011.

[21] Gradinarova, T. Do We Have to Introduce a Compulsory Mediation with Regard to Specific Disputes, published in Bulgarian on 11.11.2019 at www.legalworld.bg (Bulg., Градинарова, Т. Следва ли да бъде въведен задължителен елемент за провеждане на медиация по определени спорове, статия от сайта Правен свят, 11.11.2019 г.)

[22] Amendments to the CPC promulgated in State Gazette №65/7.08.2018.

[23] Interview of Boriana Dimitrova, member of the Supreme Judicial Council, Ikonomist, No2/2019.

[24] Two pilot judgements of ECtHR Dimitrov and Hamanov v. Bulgaria and Finger v. Bulgaria.

[25] Amendments to the JSA promulgated in State Gazette No50/2012 and amendments to the Act on the Liability of the State and the Municipalities for Damages promulgated in State Gazette No98/2012.

[26] Directive 2013/48/EU of the European Parliament and of the Council of 22 October 2013 on the right of access to a lawyer in criminal proceedings and in European arrest warrant proceedings, and on the right to have a third party informed upon deprivation of liberty and to communicate with third persons and with consular authorities while deprived of liberty, OJ L 294, 6.11.2013

[27] Directive (EU) 2016/1919 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 26 October 2016 on legal aid for suspects and accused persons in criminal proceedings and for requested persons in European arrest warrant proceedings, OJ L 297, 4.11.2016

[28] The text of the strategy is approved by the Parliament with a decision on Jan.21, 2015 (Bulg.) Актуализирана стратегия за продължаване на реформата в съдебната система, одобрена от Народното събрание на 21.01.2015 г.

[29] The text of the strategy is approved by the NLAB with decision No168/10.06.2016. (Bulg., Актуализирана стратегия за развитие на Нaционалното бюро за правна помощ, приета с решение на заседанието на НБПП №168/10.06.2016 г.) Available in Bulgarian on the website www.nbpp.government.bg

[30] Promulgated in State Gazette No79/4.10.2005.

[31] Public Interest Law Initiative, Interights, Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, Polish Helsinki Foundation for Human Rights (2003), Access to Justice in Central and Eastern Europe. A Source Book, p.3 available at www.pilnet.org

[32] Open Society Institute – Sofia (2018) Assessment of the Access to Legal Aid in the Pre-Trial Phase of Criminal Proceedings in Bulgaria in 2015, available in Bulgarian and English at https://osis.bg

[33] Ibid.

[34] See Bulgarian Helsinki Committee, 2015 Annual Border Monitoring Report – Access to Territory and International Protection, p.20 – it describes the lack of adequate interpretation in the cases where foreigners seek asylum or international protection, but the problem concerns the criminal proceedings as well.

[35] Promulgated in State Gazette No78/08.07.1925; lost effect in 1936.

[36] This trend is briefly sketched in note 9 by Davidkova-Dimitrova, D. Obligatory participation of defence counsel in criminal proceedings, in De Jure, No1/2015 (Bulg.,  Давидкова-Димитрова, Д. Задължително участие на защитник в наказателния процес, De Jure, №1/2015).

[37] Ratified by Ordinance No1199 of the Presidency of the Parliament on 23.07.1970, State Gazette No 60/1970. (Bulg., Ратифициран с Указ №1199 на Президиума на Народното събрание от 23.07.1970 г., ДВ, бр.60/1970).

[38] In Davidkova-Dimitrova, D., op.cit.

[39] Promulgated in State Gazette, No79/4.10.2005; last amendments promulgated in State Gazette No92/6.11.2018. English translation of the LAA is available in internet at the website of the NLAB www.nbpp.government.bg

[40] Amendments to the LAA, promulgated in State Gazette No13/7.02.2017.

[41] Belezhkov, B. The defender in criminal procedure for offences, committed by minors, Advokatski pregled, No6-7/2018, pp.38-49. (Bulg., Бележков, Б. Защитникът в наказателното производство по делата за престъпления, извършени непълнолетни, сп. Адвокатски преглед, бр.6-7/2018.)

[42] Data about the overall number of the registered lawyers is from the annual reports of the Supreme Bar Council for the respective year. The data about the number of lawyers in the National legal aid registry are from the respective annual reports of the NLAB.

[43] Promulgated in State Gazette No5/17.01.2006, last amendment promulgated in State Gazette No98/15.12.2015.

[44] Open Society Institute – Sofia (2018), op.cit.

[45] Data about the average monthly salary are from the NSI, Employment and average monthly salaries in the fourth quarter of 2015 (Bulg., НСИ, Наети лица и средна брутна заплата през четвъртото тримесечие на 2015 г.), available in Bulgarian at www.nsi.bg

[46] Belezhkov, B. op.cit.

[47] Open Society Institute – Sofia (2018), op.cit., p.16.

[48] Based on art.8 of Ordinance No4/2006 of the Supreme bar council pertaining to the sustainability and the improvement of the professional qualification of lawyers and lawyers from the EU (Bulg., Наредба №4/2006 г. на Висшия адвокатски съвет за поддържане и повишаване на квалификацията на адвокатите и адвокатите от ЕС), promulgated in State Gazette No5/17.01.2006.

[49] Kanev, K. International legal standards for the right to legal defence and support for suspects, accused and defendants in criminal proceedings, Advokatski pregled, No1/2018, pp.3-51. (Bulg., Кънев, К. Международни стандарти за правото на правна защита и подпомагане на заподозрени, обвиняеми и подсъдими в наказателния процес, сп. Адвокатски преглед, бр.1/2018, с.3-51.)

[50] Detailed discussion on the access to various procedural rights in “police detention” see Grozev, Y. op.cit.

[51] Stefanova, Zl. (2018) In Support of the Detained by the Police and of the Defendant in Pre-trial Criminal Procedure. Open Society Institute – Sofia. р.17 (Bulg., Стефанова, Зл., (2018) В помощ на задържания от полицията и на обвиняемия в досъдебното производство, Институт Отворено общество – София, с.17)

[52] Open Society Institute-Sofia (2018), op.cit. p. 9.

[53] Interpretative Decision of the General Assembly of the Penal Chamber of the Supreme court of cassation No 4/2010, taken on 19 February 2010 (Bulg., Тълкувателно решение на общото събрание на Наказателна колегия на ВКС №4/2010 г., взето на 19.02.2010 г.)

[54] By criminal case “of general nature” it is meant the cases where the indictment is submitted by a prosecutor as opposite to the cases where based on the PPC the criminal case is initiated through a motion of private prosecution. The data about the workload of the courts is from Supreme Court of cassation, Report on the implementation of the law and the activity of the courts in 2015 (Bulg., Доклад за прилагането на закона и за дейността на съдилищата през 2015), available in Bulgarian at www.vks.bg

[55] In case there are several defendants and their interests are not contradicting, there may be only one legal aid lawyer for the case. See Open Society Institute-Sofia (2018), op.cit.

[56] For historic and comparative legal perspective on the ex officio defence in civil procedure see Kostov, I. Ex officio defence in civil and trade law cases, in Advokatski pregled, No.11/2018. (Bulg., Костов, И. Задължителната адвокатска защита по граждански и търговски дела, сп. Адвокатски преглед, №11/2018.)

[57] Some examples of services for victims of domestic violence combining legal and psychological help are provided by Gender Alternatives Foundation through funding from Oak Foundation, see https://genderalternatives.org; Foundation “H&D Gender Perspectives” through funding from EEA Grants, see http://hdgender.eu ); example of psychological and legal assistance for victims of trafficking in human beings at PULS Foundation, see http://pulsfoundation.org, etc.

[58] Promulgated in State Gazette No71/1.09.1992, last amendment promulgated in State Gazette No35/2.05.2017.

[59] About 5 USD and 25 USD respectively.

[60] Adopted by the Supreme bar council with its decision No324 of 08.07.2005, promulgated in the State Gazette No60/22.07.2005.

[61] Report of the chairman of the Disciplinary court of the Sofia bar council Mr. Svetozar Zlatanov to the General assembly of the Sofia bar held on 25-26.01.2020 in Sofia, page 71 – 72 of the records (Bulg., Отчет на председателя на дисциплинарния съд към САС г-н Светозар Златанов пред общото събрание на САС, проведено на 25-26.01.2020, с.71-72 от протокола)

[62] The information is from the web site of the Ministry of Education and Science/ Ranking system of the Bulgaria universities, available in Bulgarian at https://rsvu.mon.bg

[63] As quoted in Kiselova, N. (ed.) (2018) The Role of the Fundamental Disciplines in the Legal Education. Deontological Aspects in the Legal Education. Bulgarian Institute for Legal Initiatives. (Bulg., Киселова, Н. (ред.) Значението на фундаменталните дисциплини в юридическото образование. Ценностни измерения в юридическото образование, 2018, Български институт за правни инициативи), available in Bulgarian at www.bili-bg.org

[64] Adopted by Governmental decree No82/26.04.2017, promulgated in State Gazette No35/2.05.2017.

[65] Kiselova, N. op.cit. p.68.

[66] This information is taken from the web site of the Ministry of transport, informational technologies and communications www.mtitc.government.bg last visited Jan.13,2020

[67] European Commission, Digital Government Infographic 2019. Bulgaria.

[68] Gramatikov, M. (2009) Justiciable Events in Bulgaria. Open Society Institute – Sofia. (Bulg., Граматиков, М. Изследване на правните проблеми в България по метода на justiciable events. Институт Отворено общество – София), available in Bulgarian at http://osis.bg ; for English language analysis of the results see also Gramatikov, M. Multiple Justiciable Problems in Bulgaria, Tilburg University Legal Studies Working Paper No16/2008.

[69] NLAB (2017) Nationally Representative Survey of the Need for Legal Aid in Bulgaria (Bulg., НБПП (2017)  Национално-представително изследване на нуждата от правна помощ в България и качествени проучвания), available in Bulgarian at the website of the NLAB www.nbpp.govenment.bg

[70] Art.5, al.1, p.7 of the Law on Pre-school and School Education, promulgated in State Gazette No79/13.10.2015. (Bulg., чл.5, ал.1, т.7 от Закон за предучилищното и училищното образование, обн. ДВ №79/13.10.2015).

[71] Open Society Institute-Sofia (2019) Democracy and Civic Participation. Public Attitudes towards Democracy, the Rule of Law and Fundamental Human Rights in 2018. Available in Bulgarian and English at https://osis.bg