The Law Society has called for the establishment of a legal aid fund to provide “underserved and disadvantaged” segments of society with greater access to justice.

Speaking at the opening of the Legal Year 2018 this morning, Law Society president On Hung Zheng (pictured above) urged authorities to facilitate the establishment of the fund, which would provide the less fortunate with funding for legal representation in criminal and civil cases.

On later told The Scoop that financing for the legal aid fund — whether through state coffers or private donations — still had to be discussed with the Attorney General’s Chambers (AGC) and other government agencies.

He explained that the Law Society’s monthly legal aid clinic — which provides free advice, but not representation — was not a viable solution for those in need of actual legal representation.

“People who can’t afford representation can’t go to court, or they are sometimes forced to represent themselves without sufficient legal knowledge,” the Law Society president said. “Yet these are the people most in need of legal remedies and access to justice.”

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The legal community attends the opening of the Legal Year 2018 at the Supreme Court building. Photo: Rudolf Portillo

Under current procedures, only defendants in death penalty cases are eligible to receive state-funded legal aid.

In 2017, five court cases received legal aid, according to statistics provided by the AGC in the Legal Year 2018 handbook.

In his maiden speech, 35-year-old On — who is the youngest president in the Law Society’s history — encouraged more lawyers to lend their skills to the recently-revived legal clinic.

“Lawyers should be filled with a spirit to serve the public… These may not be hours which are billable in terms of fees, but billable in terms of a higher currency — that of giving back to the community.”

“The simple act of suggesting a course of action may be enough to bring hope to what might otherwise appear to be a bleak circumstance,” he said.

The Chief Justice Dato Seri Paduka Hj Kifrawi Dato Paduka Hj Kifli said the reintroduction of the Law Society’s legal clinic was an important move to strengthen access to justice.

He also commended the work of NGOs that have set up their own legal clinics — such as the one established by Majlis Kesejahteraan Masyarakat in 2013 — saying it was a reflection of “a deep commitment to fostering and developing a strong sense of community across society”.