Baby legal eagles to the rescue.
Sunday, 30 November 2008 08:40am
(From left) Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, Valen Khor Xiou Shan and Bar Council Legal Aid Centre chairman Ravi Nekoo.
©New Sunday Times (Used by permission)
• 'They never asked us a single sen'Up to 90 per cent of those charged with crimes in the Kuala Lumpur courts do not have access to legal assistance or representation. While most lawyers might choose to sit in cushy offices and ignore this is happening, Audrey Vijaindren finds out that some young lawyers are trying to correct the situation.
THEY'RE not on a payroll. They don't get a fat bonus. And they don't go on lavish company trips.
A hip bar downtown? Fancy designer clothing stores? These young lawyers could be anywhere they want.But yet, every week they choose to gather at the courthouse and Bar Council Legal Aid Centre (LAC) to help those who can't find their way around Malaysia's legal system.The primary objective in legal aid is to provide all citizens equal opportunities for the enforcement of their fundamental right to equality before the law.
The centre has spent over RM100 million this year doing just that.The centre's baby legal eagle Fadiah Nadwa Fikri and her buddies have been giving up their weekends to give back to society for the past two years."Many people think that it's too time-consuming and not worth the effort. But, that's not true."It only takes a few hours a week to make a difference in someone's life. And if every lawyer gave a little bit of his or her time, we'll be able to reach out to many."Legal awareness campaigns, human rights talks and mobile clinics are what Fadiah is most passionate about.
"We give advice on everything under the sun to anyone who needs it. Many people who come for help are those who can't afford a lawyer and have nowhere else to turn to."Not everyone has the benefit of understanding the law. But that shouldn't be a reason they have to plead guilty for a crime they didn't commit."I hope by sacrificing a part of my weekend, I'll be able to empower people and teach them how to protect themselves."Because lawyers have the privilege of reading the law, she says they shouldn't be stingy about sharing knowledge."Law is a very complex subject and it's difficult for the layman to know what it's about. Lawyers have the ability to understand it and should educate the rest."It's not only a contribution to society but also a nation-building service.
"Valen Khor Xiou Shan, 25, is another baby legal eagle who has put her social life on hold for those lost in court."It's not easy to juggle volunteer work and an office job. Most of us have just joined law firms and are trying to prove ourselves at work. Taking too much time off could make us look bad."My boss is supportive enough to allow me to excuse myself from some meetings to volunteer. But I have many friends who aren't as lucky."Khor started volunteering immediately after completing her compulsory 14 days' legal aid service while chambering."I learnt that many young lawyers stop volunteering the moment they finish chambering."After they finish the 14 days, they just leave and never come back."They should realise that it's not only about giving back to society but also a way of polishing our communication skills."In the end, I find it helps in my work as well."But volunteering, she says, is no joke."You are answerable to your clients. If you're not committed in doing a good job and helping those in need, then you shouldn't give false hopes."If you concentrate more on working than giving back to society, think twice about what you want in life and why you became a lawyer.
"Bar Council Legal Aid Centre chairman Ravi Nekoo says they have helped more than 18,000 clients so far this year alone."You can't depend on volunteers alone if you want legal aid to work. There are many people out there who can't afford legal representation."The government must step in and provide assistance."As the country develops, the legal aid centre is feeling the strain."He says it's fortunate that many young chambering pupils later come back to the centre to volunteer their services because they have the passion to serve and learn."It's hard to know how many there are because they come and go. Most of our volunteers are in their 20s. Access to justice is fundamental. In most countries, legal aid is part of the curriculum."It's sad that it's still not part of the syllabus here."Legal aid, he says, is not only a service to the poor."People think it's only the poor who need help. That's not true. Legal aid serves a larger section of society, like squatter area residents."But most of the cases we are helping with are for criminal defence."
DIFFERENT CLINICS TO SERVE DIFFERENT NEEDSTHE Legal Aid Centre (LAC) reaches out to many by offering various services:
• Legal aid clinic and syariah clinic: These clinics create awareness and educate the public on their rights and duties. Members of the public come to seek advice on legal problems such as criminal cases (client on bail or in remand in prison), family cases, domestic violence cases and syariah cases.
• Dock Brief: This programme provides legal advice, representation and assistance to unrepresented people in the magistrate courts in Jalan Duta, Kuala Lumpur, for only criminal offences. Services are provided to those clients who plead guilty and need assistance in mitigation (reducing the sentence), bail applications and remand hearings.
• Prison Clinic and Juvenile Remand Home: This programme provides legal advice, representation and assistance to remand detainees in prison and homes for the juveniles, including women. It also helps family members to post bail and to inform them of the whereabouts of clients.
• LAC/Awam Legal Information Service: This is a joint programme with the All Women Action Society (Awam), which provides legal advice and assistance on criminal and employment cases. These are mostly on matters relating to women, especially involving family cases and domestic violence cases.
• LAC/Sisters In Islam Clinic: This is a joint programme with Sisters-In-Islam (SIS) and deals mostly with syariah and other matters relating to women.
• LAC/Tenaganita Migrant Workers Clinic: This is a joint programme with Tenaganita’s Migrant Workers Desk, providing advice, representation and assistance to deserving legal migrant workers.
• LAC/UNHCR Clinic: This is a joint programme with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. It provides legal advice and assistance on refugees’ issues to refugees.•
LAC/PTF/MAC Legal Clinic: The Pink Triangle Foundation (PTF) and Malaysian Aids Council (MAC) provide legal assistance and advice to six communities, including people living with AIDS, sexworkers, gay men, lesbians, drug users and transsexuals who have been marginalised by society.* For more information on the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre, visit their new website at http://www.legalaidkl.org/ or call 03-26932072
'They never asked us a single sen'RAIN or shine, the lawyers from the Legal Aid Centre were there to help.
"Even in bad weather, they never let us down," says Sabariah Hashim, who lived in a squatter home in Kampung Semarak, Kuala Lumpur, for over 30 years.Sabariah, 40, and her family received a letter from City Hall asking them to pack up and leave."It was a complete shock to us. No one expects to be told they have to gather their belongings and find a new shelter. It was a stressful and sad time for my entire family. We didn't see it coming."Some families willingly agreed to leave, but the rest wanted to take our cases to court."
More than 300 families in Kampung Semarak, Kampung Padang Tembak and Kampung Loke Yew were asked to leave their homes in September, 2006. Almost half took the matter to court.The legal fees would have amounted to thousands, Sa-bariah says, but thanks to the Bar Council's Legal Aid Centre, it didn't cost a sen."I don't know what we would have done without them. The centre helped us with court matters until the end. The matter reached Federal Court in March last year."They were very helpful, very good and on top of that, they never asked us for a single sen."Most of the squatters could not afford to pay anything more than RM50, which was used for filing documents and photocopying."Because of the frequent trips to Putrajaya, we put money in an envelope to pay for the lawyers' petrol expenses, but they refused the money. That's how selfless and genuine they were."Sabariah says even the staff were polite and kind."There were many instances where we had to call the centre for last minute meetings."Many of the lawyers at the centre are very young and just out of college but they're so professional. We couldn't have got better lawyers even if we had the money."Sabariah today is happily married and living in a rented flat with RM2,000 spending money she obtained from the city council.