Access to Justice

It was our first round of food bag distribution during the first Covid-19 Movement Control Order. Having loaded up in Mydin, our team made our way to the SS19/7A Low Cost Flats.

A mother approached us with two children. She held them one on each side.

“Miss boleh tak minta bantuan?”, she asked me.

“Boleh. Apa isunya?” I responded.

“Husband saya sudah tak duduk serumah dengan saya dan anak. Sudah 20 tahun. Saya ibu tunggal. Perlu bantuan kewangan”

“Okay Puan. Puan sudah daftar dengan Jabatan Kebajikan Masyarakat ke belum?”

JKM is usually our first referral for single mothers as the agency provides monthly aid.

“Dah. Tapi mereka kata tak layak”, she said.

“Eh mengapa tak layak? Puan dah cerai kan?”

“Tak cerai. Cuma husband sudah tak duduk dengan kami dan ada keluarga lain.”

“Okay. Jadi Puan ada tak terima BRIM?”

“Tak. Semua husband ambik.”

That made sense, because on paper they were still considered a family, and the cash aid is given to each household.

“Mengapa Puan sudah lama sangat tak nak cerai?”

“Bukan tak nak, Miss. Tak cukup duit pergi mahkamah.”

It made me think – how many others were stuck in the system because they could not afford access to justice?

It was also at about this time during the pandemic that we had an influx of inquiries regarding employment matters – of unpaid staff salaries, unilateral salary adjustments, termination without notice, threats of termination issued when employers forced staff to turn up for work despite the Movement Control Orders.

Employees who found themselves in this position often had insufficient savings to begin with, and so seeking justice through the courts is often out of the question.

Many became victims of the system.

These issues still remained rather fresh even after the Movement Control Orders were lifted.

It was July 2020. I immediately sought an engagement with the Malaysian Bar regarding the matter. I figured as well that we’d have more strength in numbers, and so I asked YB Lim Yi Wei, the State Assemblywoman for Kampung Tunku, if she’d come on this journey with me.

We met with the Bar Council committee. Various options were considered. As a lawyer myself, I was aware of the policies implemented by the Bar. One of which, for example, was to have the renewal of Practising Certificates be subject to a prescribed number of hours of Continuing Professional Development courses one had to attend. I asked whether it was possible for the Bar to consider something similar to encourage more lawyers to take up pro bono cases. Either that, or consider a deduction in annual fees that we’d have to pay to the State or Malaysian Bar as an incentive.

I was told that this could not be done, that lawyers are unlikely to want to pay filing fees and disbursements out of pocket. As it is, the Selangor Bar was already facing difficulties sustaining their Legal Aid programme.

I was challenged by the Malaysian Bar Committee, instead, to have the Selangor State Government play a more active role in access to justice. No State Government in Malaysia had a programme at that time to address this issue.

Stakeholders as it is were overburdened – the Bar Council, Selangor Bar and Jabatan Bantuan Guaman.

I decided to take it up. The first thing I did  was to raise in this issue the July State Assembly sitting – the need for the State to participate in access to justice.

Of all the portfolios in the Selangor State Cabinet, I felt that YB Dr Siti Mariah Mahmud, who was the Chairlady of the Standing Committee on Health, Welfare, Women and Family Empowerment – helmed all the portfolios that would allow a legal aid policy to materialise.

However, when I approached her, I was informed that the budget allocated was already tight, as it is, and that she already had plans on how to use each cent.

The next best option was to lobby the Menteri Besar for a legal aid programme to be included in 2021’s State Budget.

But an incident took place in October 2020, which would greatly ease the process – a cabinet reshuffle.

YB Dr Siti Mariah’s Welfare portfolio was to be passed on to YB Ganabatirau Veraman, who also had a ‘Worker’s’ portfolio added to his responsibilities. YB Ganabatirau was also a lawyer by profession, and had experience handling employment matters.

I quickly asked to meet and pitched the idea. YB Ganabatirau empathised with the growing need and how many were trapped by circumstance. He agreed to pursue the idea. And with that, we had a voice in the State Cabinet.

YB Lim Yi Wei and I drafted a paper for YB Ganabatirau to present the same in the State Cabinet. We had engagements with the Malaysian Bar, Selangor Bar and Jabatan Kehakiman Syariah Negeri Selangor to finalise the contents. It was agreed that the State will start a legal aid programme focusing on family and workers issues. Matters falling outside this scope would have to be approved by the Special Legal Aid Committee comprising of YB Ganabathirau, YB Lim Yi Wei, myself, the State Economic Planning Unit, representatives from the Selangor Bar and Malaysian Bar.

This paper was brought to the State Cabinet, and an allocation of RM1million was approved. The funds were to be disbursed to the Selangor Bar as trustee, who would only pay out the funds to the lawyer appointed after the requisite interviews and due diligence for each file. Calculations of filing fees and estimated disbursements were made – for suits filed by individuals, a subsidy of RM1,500 will be given whilst RM2,000 will be issued for class actions. To qualify, the applicant would have to be a Selangor resident of 10 years or a voter, and would have to earn an income of less than RM3000 per month.

And so this is how an incident in Subang Jaya inspired the nation’s first state, to participate in access to justice.