PUTRAJAYA, Jan 13 ― The Malaysian Bar today expressed worry that allocations may be reduced for a government-run legal aid scheme that currently benefits tens of thousands of accused persons in criminal cases each month.
Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru noted that the UK's legal aid system, which was established in 1949, had been significantly dismantled and caused a drastic reduction in the number of accused persons who have lawyers to represent them.
He said a reduction of resources for the Putrajaya-funded Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (YBGK) could lead to the same problems.
“We are concerned that, in the present economic climate and recent ominous announcement by government that legal aid needs to be streamlined, the YBGK will suffer the same fate.
“This should not happen because a state-funded legal aid programme is not less important than a state-funded public health scheme,” he said in a speech at the opening of the 2017 legal year here.
Earlier in his speech, Steven cited US Supreme Court judge Hugo Black as saying that there cannot be equal justice if the kind of trial a person gets depends on the amount of funds he has.
“In many countries, access to justice is a state responsibility. However state funding suffers when governments embark on an austerity drive. In an economic downturn, access to justice is viewed as a luxury rather than a basic necessity,” he said.
Steven's comments came after yet more cuts to the allocations for many government bodies in Budget 2017, as Putrajaya sought to stick to its goal of trimming its budget deficit amid challenging economic conditions.
Steven noted that the YBGK launched in 2011 by the prime minister is a joint initiative between the government and the three professional bodies representing lawyers in Malaysia, where the accused persons are given free legal representation in criminal cases.
He said YBGK's lawyers handled a monthly average of 15,166 cases last year.
As for the Malaysian Bar's own legal aid scheme founded in 1983 where at least one legal aid centre can be found in each state, volunteer lawyers provide free legal aid and had last year alone handled a total of 19,629 cases, he said.
Last August, de facto law minister Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said said the government was studying the possibility of streamlining legal aid services to address possible overlap between those provided by the government, the Malaysian Bar and non-governmental organisations.
She had also said then that the government may look into how it would determine who is entitled to receive legal aid instead of just judging based on their income levels.
Last year, UK paper The Guardian cited Amnesty International reporting that the number of UK cases where legal aid was provided dropped by 46 per cent from 925,000 cases in 2012 to 497,000 cases in 2013, owing to severe funding restrictions after the Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Act kicked in in 2013.