Justice seen, justice done
I was, at the time, on the court reporting beat and was on my lunch break in the Press room when an elderly pakcik’s head popped through the door.
After giving his salam, he asked if any of us (there were a couple of reporters in the room) were lawyers, to which we replied in the negative.
Pakcik was asked why he wanted to see one. In a low, hushed tone, he asked, after being told that we were journalists, if we knew any lawyer who would represent his son, caught for, if my memory serves me right, a drug offence, for a nominal sum, or even for free.
It must have been hard for him to enquire, and share with a bunch of strangers the fact that his own flesh and blood was in trouble with the law.
He must have also known that it was a risk, considering we were newshounds who could very well end up reporting his son’s case that very day after he had unwittingly alerted us to it.
One of the reporters suggested trying the Legal Aid Bureau. Pakcik’s face lit up. There was hope. He muttered his thanks and left.
Later, I bumped into him and he told me he couldn’t get the bureau’s help.
“Mana pakcik nak cari duit bayar lawyer?” was more or less the question the dejected man asked before he walked away.
You see, the bureau, despite the fact that it was a government-run set-up to assist the needy, didn’t handle criminal cases — unless you were pleading guilty to an offence, ironically enough.
It was certainly a strange animal.
The bureau was restricted by the Legal Aid Act 1971 that prohibited assigned lawyers to provide representation to an arrested person. The same Act also confined representation to those wanting to plead guilty to a criminal charge or those charged under the Minor Offences Act 1995.
Its lawyers could not touch a case where the accused wanted to claim trial. Some quarters had lambasted the bureau’s existence as “lame” as it was not seen as a serious effort to provide legal representation to the needy.
Questions had also been asked on why this was the case since it was receiving government grants that ran into millions of ringgit annually, one report said – and yet, would only offer services for mainly minor offences.
Its lawyers, unlike the lawyers of the Bar Council, were also given fee waivers for filing documents in court. All the perks, and not the clout. Nor, suspiciously, the commitment.
Come October, however, anyone arrested for criminal offences and earning less than RM25,000 a year can get free legal aid from the National Legal Aid Foundation (NLAF). Those who earn between RM25,000 and RM36,000 a year need to only pay a token sum of RM300.
I am glad, and wish the NLAF all the best. We definitely need initiatives like this to work. For eons now, those familiar with the operations of courtrooms will be able to tell you there were problems getting pro bono (free) legal representation from the bureau.
During my days covering courts, I cannot recall a time when there were actually people in the bureau offices.
That was years ago of course, but I remember filing stories from the bureau’s office at the KL courthouse since it was vacant most of the time.
Personally, I agree that the bureau deserves the criticisms it has been getting. It seems that for a long time before the formation of NLAF, the onus to provide free legal representation and advice for criminal cases was exclusively that of the Bar Council via its Legal Aid Centres.
The Bar Council lawyers did it pro bono, and yet there were issues like the absence of funding and waiver of filing fees unlike the perks enjoyed by their fairly dormant colleagues attached to the Legal Aid Bureau.
At a Press conference two days ago, NLAF alternate director Ragunath Kesavan promised immediate legal representation from lawyers with the foundation — which received a RM5 million grant from the offices of Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak — to any Malaysian arrested and remanded. It currently has 1,000 lawyers and hopes to have 3,000 signing up as members.
It also hopes to get 500 syariah lawyers to assist in syariah criminal cases.
Ragunath said the foundation hoped to get young lawyers to join. The exposure would be good, and they would be paid RM250 a day handling remand cases. He also shared the fact that 80 per cent of Malaysians go unrepresented when arrested.
I hope lawyers would take up the cause and right this anomaly. Kudos must also go to the government, especially Najib, for listening and acting on the rakyat’s grouses.
I wish Ragunath and company all the best, and at the same time, caution that this venture must not be allowed to falter.
The nation owes that much to that pakcik, and the likes of him...