BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – In the interest of improving access to justice, the Law Society has announced a pilot programme for a legal aid fund to assist Bruneians who cannot afford legal representation in criminal cases.

Law Society president On Hung Zheng said the fund will be used to help defendants in five specific areas: theft, attempted suicide, infanticide, offences involving young persons, and crimes where defendants are intellectually-challenged or suffering from mental illness.

“Everyone has the right to a fair hearing and representation,” On told The Scoop in a recent interview. “We felt that these were areas where defendants are often from underserved and disadvantaged segments of society that need better access to justice.”

On Hung Zheng, president of the Law Society, speaks during the opening of the Legal Year on Feb 6, 2018. Photo: Rudolf Portillo

He explained that the current legal aid framework administered by the Supreme Court only provides assistance in cases that carry the death penalty, which are assigned to members of the Law Society on a rotational basis.

“We’ve had talks with the judiciary, which supports the creation of a legal aid fund,” On shared, adding that the creation of a formal fund will provide more structure and better accountability.

‘Greater access to justice’

On said that for now, the legal aid fund will only be used for criminal cases in which the defendant wishes to plead guilty and requires legal counsel for mitigation or plea bargaining.

“At the moment we will not be engaging in cases that will go to trial because the cost is so great, in terms of time and money,” he said.

Other criminal or civil cases will be considered on a case-to-case basis, but syariah cases will not be eligible to receive legal aid because syariah attorneys are represented by a different association from the Law Society, the president explained.

He also urged members of legal profession to volunteer their services to the Law Society on a rotational basis, saying that while the hours aren’t billable, they would be performing an important function by providing greater access to justice.

Disbursements from the legal aid fund will paid to the lawyers to cover court filing fees and travel allowances.

The fund will be financed through private donations from individuals, law firms and through Law Society events. All monies will be kept in a trust account by the association.

Eligibility for legal aid

There are several criteria that must be fulfilled before a member of the public can qualify for legal aid.

The applicant must be a Bruneian citizen, permanent resident or stateless person with an income not more than $1,500 a month.

They must show they have good reason to defend their case, and must not have obtained legal representation by any lawyer or law firm before the application.

The Law Society presdifent said that foreigners were not eligible to receive legal aid for the time being, as their cases are often taken up by their respective embassies.

This article was updated on August 16 at 10.54am to reflect a clarification to the quote in the fifth paragraph.