BANDAR SERI BEGAWAN – One of Brunei’s leading criminal attorneys has called for a legal amendment to make it compulsory for members of the Law Society to take up pro bono cases.

Mohd Yusof Halim, who heads a free legal advisory clinic for the Brunei Council on Social Welfare (MKM), said changes could be made to the Legal Profession Act that make it mandatory for lawyers to clock a minimum number of pro bono hours as a condition of their annual license.

Such a move would provide better access to justice to marginalised sections of society, he argued.

“In some other jurisdictions, lawyers are required to clock a set number of pro bono work that is registered with a central agency as a condition of their annual license,” he told The Scoop.

“To accomplish this we must first establish a central organising committee that will oversee the distribution of pro bono cases to the members of the Law Society”.

Yusof said MKM’s legal clinic has opened more than 400 case files to provide free legal advice, and has brought 40 cases to court since the clinic was established in 2013.

But finding law firms and lawyers willing to volunteer their time at the clinic has been challenging.

“You would probably find few of them who would be earnest enough to do it.”

He also stressed the importance of strengthening legal aid with the Syariah Penal Code coming into force, as some offences carry punishments such as the death penalty and amputation of limbs.

Law Society’s view

In a statement sent to The Scoop, the Law Society did not explicitly state whether it supports mandatory pro bono work for its members, saying instead that any amendment to the Legal Profession Act is under purview of the Rules Committee.

“The Law Society and its members strongly support pro bono legal work, with or without the implementation of Syariah… We also note that many firms and lawyers do pro bono work, whether at the request of Law Society or not, and without any publicity.”

The Law Society revived its monthly legal advisory clinic in 2018 and established a legal aid defence fund last August.

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,” said On Hung Zheng, the Law Society president.

“We felt that these were areas where defendants are often from underserved and disadvantaged segments of society that need better access to justice.”

He added that the fund would address gaps in the current legal aid framework administered by the Supreme Court, which only provides state-funded assistance in death penalty cases. Those cases are assigned to members of the Law Society on a rotational basis.

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.

Syariah cases will not be eligible under the fund because syariah attorneys are represented by a different association from the Law Society.

On said the fund has so far received private donations in the “small thousands”, on top of the annual budget of $5,000 that is awarded to the society.