- Mia Gusting
Access to Justice in Malaysia: Legal Aid For the Marginalised
What is Legal Aid?
The primary function of the Legal Aid System is the provision of legal services that are free of charge or in reduced fees to individuals who cannot afford exorbitant legal fees. The Legal Aid Act of 1971 (“the Act”) administers governmental effort to address and improve the legal aid system in Malaysia and to provide access to eligible applicants. Legal support comes in two forms: access to legal advice and legal representation in court proceedings.
Barriers of Access to Justice in the Malaysian Legal Aid System
The complexity of the system sanctions a gap between law and justice, affecting the marginalised and underserved populations which includes illegal immigrants and temporary pass holders. Such instances are the 2017 amendments to the Act that intercepts legal aid for foreigners and the limitation in the coverage of legal representation in various legal aid agencies.
The adequacy of legal aid schemes also depends on budget allocation derived from governmental grants and self-funding by participating lawyers. However, the lack of compensation derogates lawyers from participating in legal aid schemes. Pro bono culture in Malaysia are also known to be close to non-existent as compared to other thriving nations, which diminishes a lawyer’s legal ethics and professional responsibility. This ignites the dire need of awareness for legal representation for those within groups with insufficient financial means.
In order for these schemes to stay afloat, the government and members of the legal profession must be made cognizant of the matter to eradicate the helplessness of lower income groups towards their rights of access to the court system. As the Federal Constitution provides, any arrested individual “shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.” Proper funding and budget allocation should also be implemented to encourage lawyers to provide legal effort.
Access to free, affordable legal services
Legal services are accessible through various organisations. The Yayasan Bantuan Guaman Kebangsaan (YBGK) also known as the National Legal Aid Center (NLAF) provides pro bono services that encompasses mainly criminal cases and Shariah criminal cases. YBGK covers all stages of criminal cases and will be given legal representation except for serious crimes that carry the death sentence. Applicants must have an annual income that does not exceed RM36,000 and the scheme is only open for Malaysian citizens and all children regardless of citizenship status.
Bar Council Legal Aid Center (LAC) provides aid to areas of family law, employment law, Shariah law and criminal cases. There is a minimum administrative fee of RM 20 to open a file. And a requirement to pay the disbursement expenses incurred by the assigned lawyer. To be eligible for the scheme, applicants should not have a monthly income more than RM 650 for an unmarried individual and RM 900 for married couples and is open to both Malaysians and non-Malaysians.
The Legal Aid Department (LAD) is an initiative derived from the Act. It provides legal representation in a limited amount of criminal proceedings. Eligible applicants must have an annual income within RM 25,000 or between RM 25,000 and RM 30,000 and the minimal registration fee is required depending on the applicants’ income. This is only open for Malaysian citizens.
Other instances where you can obtain legal representation aid are through non-governmental organisations such as Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), TENAGANITA, Asylum Access Malaysia, Shan Refugee Organisation and Sabah Human Rights Centre.
Lawyers who wish to involve in legal aid briefs may sign up with the following organisations:
Bar Council Kuala Lumpur Legal Aid Center
Selangor Bar Legal Aid Center
Sabah Law Society Legal Aid Center
Other states Legal Aid Center
Bar Council Legal Aid Center Programs
National Legal Aid Foundation (YBGK)
Sabah Human Rights Centre Legal Aid Program