Assalamualaikum and good morning to everyone.
The Honourable Tan Sri Tommy Thomas, Attorney General of Malaysia;
Honourable guests, Members of the Bar, Ladies and gentlemen,
Introduction: The Building
1. It is my great pleasure to welcome all of you today to the "Opening Ceremony of the New Premises of the Kuala Lumpur branch of the Bar Council Legal Aid Centre", or "LAC KL".
2. The move by LAC KL into Wisma Badan Peguam Malaysia, which we proudly own, in January this year was a historic moment as it marked the first time the LAC KL would no longer have to operate from rented premises. It was previously housed in the Secretariat for the Selangor and Federal Territory Bar Committee in Wisma Central on Jalan Ampang. When the Secretariat shifted to the old High Court Building, LAC KL took over the vacated attic space.
3. They then moved to the fifth floor of this building, of the then Straits Trading Building, thereafter to Wisma Kraftangan on Jalan Tun Perak, and most recently to Wisma Hangsam on Jalan Hang Lekir.
Bar Council Legal Aid Centres
4. The Bar Council's legal aid scheme had humble beginnings in my home state of Penang, the initiative of one Cecil Rajendra –– who incidentally was the recipient of our Lifetime Achievement Award earlier this year and last month, IBA Pro Bono Award –– and a group of lawyers, paralegals and university lecturers. They went on to form the Penang Legal Advisory Centre, operating out of a community library and coffee–shop, the first office was a dilapidated wooden shack by the main road. I had the pleasure of serving there during my attachment
5. This was an outworking of our statutory mandate as provided in section 42(1)(h) of the Legal Profession Act 1976, which provides that the purpose of the Malaysian Bar shall be "to make provision for or assist in the promotion of a scheme whereby impecunious persons may be represented by advocates and solicitors;"
6. With the aid of RM34,000 from the Asia Foundation, we eventually saw the Kuala Lumpur legal aid office set up by a group of lawyers in a small room in the Industrial Court, presumably as rental was free.
7. 1983 saw the birth of the LAC KL where pupils reading in chambers were required to fulfil at least 14 days 'service' during the course of their pupillage. Since then, the LAC KL has been providing legal aid services to Malaysians and foreigners. To further increase our capacity in taking up cases, the Malaysian Bar in 1995 passed a resolution requiring every practising lawyer to take up at least one legal aid case per year. Since January 2019, this centre has handled 14,962 cases.
8. In addition, the formation of the National Legal Aid Foundation, or YBGK, in 2011, saw a partnering between the Bar Council and the Attorney General's Chambers, in the provision of legal aid. This joint venture also involves the Bar Council allowing the use of our Legal Aid Centres as the front end office where clients can access YBGK services. The YBGK scheme is run by the Bar Council Subcommittee on YBGK, which handles all matters relating to YBGK and its operations. This includes implementing training for lawyers and conducting audits alongside LAC KL, which acts as the YBGK Secretariat.
9. Since 2017, this centre has also begun working formally with the Thai Embassy in giving legal advisory services to Thai Nationals residing and working in Malaysia on Malaysian laws. The centre is now in the midst of engaging other embassies as well to provide similar services.
10. In 2018, the centre embarked on a joint venture with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), to conduct outreach to provide legal awareness to refugees in Malaysia in different areas of law affecting them. This scheme –– coined the Refugees and Asylum–Seekers Legal Aid Scheme ("RALAS") –– organised by the Bar Council and UNHCR Malaysia is the first of its kind in Malaysia and was officially launched in July in this very space.
11. These efforts truly represent the most responsible execution of our statutory mandate and epitomise our belief that access to justice is a fundamental right.
Importance of Legal Aid and Reforms
12. The Malaysian Bar holds the view that the rule of law is the principle that every person –– regardless of their rank, status or office –– is subject to the same law and the same legal and judicial processes.
13. One of the important aspects of the rule of law is the protection of individual liberties. An individual requires free access to the courts of justice; this free access guarantees civil liberties and ensures that any form of injustice is curtailed. Every person, no matter what their social status is, must be allowed equal opportunity to have access to the institutions that have been set up to serve justice. The rule of law is meaningless if there is no access to justice –– which is fundamental and a necessity in any democratic society.
14. Legal Aid concerns itself on matters pertaining to access to justice. In every society the poor are generally stripped off their legal protections accorded by the law. This is not merely because the law itself is inadequate, though in some cases they are, but because the poor person has no access to justice. A poor person's rights may be trampled upon and he/she has no means to seek legal redress. Therefore the provision of legal aid services is not merely to assist the poor. It is more fundamental than that –– it is to preserve human values. Legal Aid is a fundamental human right.
15. It is a constitutional right of all arrested person to have legal representation and be allowed to consult a lawyer. However the rights guaranteed by Article 5(3) and the provisions of the CPC become meaningless and illusory if the arrested person has financial constraints and cannot afford a lawyer. Access to justice cannot be a luxury item. It must be made available to all persons regardless of means. The lack of financial resources to engage a lawyer makes the constitutional provision of equality before the law problematic since some persons will be represented and others not.
16. It is this inequality that allows the justice system that was built to deliver recourse to the public to be used as a vehicle to take advantage of and manipulate members of the public, particularly those who are caught in vulnerable situations. The scourge of touting still pervades our profession and the Bar Council has consistently spoken out against touting and has actively pursued various means to eradicate this menace. We believe that we will be able to tackle touting by improving the ease of finding a lawyer, and further disseminating knowledge and information about the various legal aid schemes available to members of the public.
17. As one of three legal aid schemes, and the only privately funded scheme, available in Malaysia, we believe that there is still a long way to go in the provision of legal aid services to the public. The Bar Council has lobbied for many years for the establishment of a comprehensive legal aid scheme, which provides for migrants, refugees, asylum seekers and stateless persons.
18. I therefore take this opportunity to reiterate the position of the Malaysian Bar in this respect, in calling on the Government to come up with a single provider to meet these needs. We stand everready to assist this cause.
19. I wish the LAC KL all the very best in their future endeavours, and they are rest assured that they will have the utmost support from the Bar Council as they continue on this steady course. To all those present here today, if you are in a position to assist, please do, we could always do with more able hands.
20. Thank you.