Soviet legal clinics -- dissidents need not apply

The building, in central Moscow, is undistinguished. The sign outside is one of those rambling Soviet socialist affairs that can't be read aloud without a gulp or two of air:

"Legal consultation . . . criminal, civil, labor, and administrative cases. This consulting office deals with all courts, legal, and administrative bodies . . . applications, complaints, and other legal documents . . . oral consultation and advice."

I had walked in because Oct. 7 was approaching. That date, as things turned out, would find much of the world pondering a murdered Anwar Sadat. Not here. Pravda barely mentioned the assassination. A frontpage headline proclaimed instead: "Today is USSR Constitution Day."

The Constitution in question was adopted four years ago, replacing a Stalin-era document of 1936. It enshrines all sorts of individual rights. It also declares these "inseparable" from individual "duties," which boil down to being a good Soviet citizen.

"Citizens," says Article 62, "are obliged to safeguard the interests of the Soviet state, and to enhance its power and prestige." Dissidents, as it were, need not apply.

The lawyer on duty at the consulting office was a pleasant, balding man in an open-necked shirt and a brown leather jacket that didn't quite fit. He was also on his way to lunch. But he smiled, motioned me toward an inner office with apologies to a handful of waiting Muscovites, and said, "I can eat later."

The law profession is less prestigious here than in the United States. There is a shortage of lawyers. The state has moved to remedy this by opening more law schools.

As for the man in the consulting bureau, he announced with fervor that would have done the American Bar Association proud: "I am glad to be a lawyer. And I am afraid of nothing in pursuing my work."

Once, before World War II, he had wanted to be a doctor. He was in Leningrad during the war, survived its brutal blockade, and decided afterward that he was not up to six long years of medical study. Law, he said, was another way of serving people.

A surly receptionist intruded. He waved her away amicably and said he would go back to his consulting in a few minutes.

Most of that work, he said, dealt with apartment-space disputes, property cases, divorces, and the like. There was some criminal law work, too, mostly auto accidents. Court dockets here are said to be similarly weighted.

Occasionally, the lawyer said, he took on labor cases. He, like many other lawyers, is attached to a Moscow Factory. He sometimes handles a worker's complaint against summary dismissal, or helps seek compensation for an on-the-job injury. If he wins a compensation case, he gets a salary bonus. All told, he usually ends up with a monthly pay packet of about 300 rubles ($430), mostly from consulting work.

This comes from state coffers. Legal services cost the Soviet citizen very little. Consultation is usually free.

The lawyer said, straightforwardly, that the main import for him of the new Constitution was that it mentioned lawyers. Indeed, Article 161 says lawyers are available to assist citizens. This does not, in contrast to US law work, involve challenging the constitutionality of laws. There is no mechanism for that.

What, I asked in passing, would the consulting bureau think of helping get a man like dissident scientist Andrei Sakharov out of forced "internal exile" in the city of Gorky?

The lawyer smiled, apparently having expected such a question. "If Sakharov had a precise dispute over, let's say, apartment space, I'd happily take his case."

But Mr. Sakharov's exile in Gorky?

"Honestly," he replied, "I don't see that he has much of a case. . . . Personally, I will never take on a case that is pointless."

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