Sunday, February 27, 2011

Legal aid centres lack funding

The Star
by P. Aruna and Wong Pek Mei

PETALING JAYA: The Bar Council has been struggling to provide aid through its 15 legal aid centres nationwide due to lack of funding and a shortage of lawyers willing to provide free service.

President Ragunath Kesavan said it was difficult to cope with the demand as lawyers could not sacrifice much time to do pro bono work as they had a heavy workload of their own.

In welcoming the National Legal Aid Foundation launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak on Friday, he said the RM5mil grant provided by the Government would assist the foundation in paying lawyers for their work.

He said the foundation would also facilitate the process of providing legal aid with the cooperation of the police.

“There will now be a ‘duty lawyer’ for every police station,” he said, adding that the police could contact the lawyers “on call” to inform them of new cases which needed legal aid.

The foundation aims to provide legal aid for the low-income group from the day they are charged with an offence until the trial stage.

Senior criminal lawyer Datuk V. Sithambaram lauded the setting up of the foundation, saying that it would ensure the public had access to legal representation and counsel for a fair hearing.

He added that in a mature and developed country, legal aid was a necessity like clean air and water.

“One can observe that in court, especially the magistrate’s court, most people plead guilty for minor crimes or traffic offences although they are not because they cannot afford to litigate the matter in court,” he said.

“It is a shame that people should do so because of poverty.”

Fahri Azzat, a lawyer who has handled criminal legal aid cases for 12 years, said it was the first step in the right direction as the country sorely lacked legal assistance for the poor.

Senior lawyer Roger Tan said the foundation would allow a person to have access to justice, which was a fundamental right of a citizen.

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