A government initiated legal aid scheme for the poor and needy is on the verge of collapse as lawyers are reluctant to represent clients.
The reason: the government is slow in settling payments for service rendered since early this year.
Selangor Bar Committee Chairman Salim Bashir said close to RM822,000 had yet to be settled, while his Negeri Sembilan counterpart Joseph Mathews said the amount owing to lawyers there was RM106,000.
FMT understands that the total amount owed to lawyers in the peninsula between January and August is about RM3.4 million.
Salim said the state legal aid committee had to literally beg its members to represent suspects and accused persons.
“But we cannot force lawyers to take up the briefs because it is voluntary,” Salim said when contacted.
Meanwhile, Selangor Legal Aid Committee Chairman A Jeyaseelan said lawyers had virtually lost confidence in the plan although they were aware that clients needed effective representation.
“Apart from getting a steady monthly income, many young lawyers participated as the scheme was also a good training ground,” he added.
Jeyaseelan said 128 files had not been attended to, and that the accused in these cases had to engage lawyers for a fee or appear in court unrepresented.
Joseph said: “Failure to make payment on time also affected the livelihood of these lawyers.”
Prime Minister Najib Razak launched the National Legal Aid Foundation (YBGK) in 2012 to provide legal aid to all Malaysians earning less than RM36,000 a year.
YBGK would provide legal assistance during arrest, remand, bail application and trial – with the exception of capital punishment cases.
The scheme is facilitated by the Malaysian Bar Council. The Attorney-General is the foundation’s chairman while the council chairman is the deputy.
Najib had said the need for the foundation was raised to him by former bar council chairman Ragunath Kesavan because it was found that 80 per cent of those charged in courts for criminal cases were unrepresented because they could not afford the legal fees.
The Cabinet then approved RM5 million as an initial grant, in a show of its support to uphold justice and guarantee Malaysians equal rights under the law.
Current president of the Malaysian Bar, Steven Thiru had earlier this year said between April 2012 and November last year, YBGK rendered legal assistance in 514,497 cases.
YBGK has also extended its scope to include assisting persons on death row to prepare petitions for clemency to the Pardons Board.
This programme began in December 2014. Lawyers have met 40 prisoners on death row in prisons in Alor Setar, Taiping and Simpang Renggam.