KUALA LUMPUR, March 18 — Late payments to lawyers that resulted in fewer people getting free legal aid from a government-funded scheme were not caused by lack of funding, the Malaysian Bar said today.
The Malaysian Bar’s newly-elected president George Varughese said that the backlog in payments by the National Legal Aid Foundation (YBGK) to the lawyers providing the free legal aid service to the public was merely due to “administrative” issues that are being tackled.
“Definitely the reason was not lack of funding, there is sufficient funding at least for the moment, there is sufficient funding to run and carry out the programme.
“The delay in payments was purely due to administrative delays, not due to lack of funds,” he told reporters here after the Malaysian Bar’s 71st Annual General Meeting (AGM).
He added that payments were current up to October last year, and will likely be up to date in a two months.
George confirmed that the last time the federal government provided allocation for YBGK was the RM20 million announced in Budget 2013, explaining that no further funds was announced as there was still enough money for its smooth operations.
He added that a request for more funds will be made to the Finance Ministry via the YGBK board when necessary.
Noting that the prime minister had initiated the YBGK scheme, George said he saw no reasons why the federal government would not continue to support it.
“Currently the YBGK represents every single remand cases. In fact, everyone who is remanded is entitled to representation and is represented by YBGK lawyers,” he said.
As for the deductions in payments made to YBGK lawyers who submitted their claims for legal aid services, George said these may be due to misunderstandings over what was claimable.
In the Malaysian Bar report for 2016/2017, it acknowledged the National Legal Aid Foundation (YBGK) — which is jointly coordinated by the Bar Council and government — had faced issues in making timely payments since November 2015 to lawyers providing counsel under the scheme.
It further acknowledged the delayed payments led to a drop in the number of lawyers willing to take on new cases under the YBGK scheme, noting that this was illustrated in the fall of number of YBGK clients receiving free legal aid by 21.4 per cent from 2015 to 2016.
It also said several Bar Council staff were sent to YBGK headquarters since last August to help clear the backlog in processing of payments, while the YBGK board had directed the foundation’s manager to prioritise clearing outstanding claims and for all eligible claims made up to September 2016 to be cleared by the end of 2016.
The report said clear timelines should be established after the backlog is cleared for timeframes on submission of claims by YBGK lawyers for services rendered, for the Legal Aid Centre to process and submit the claims to YBGK headquarters, and for the YBGK headquarters to make out the payments to lawyers.
The YBGK scheme, which began operations on April 2, 2012 provides free legal assistance to both young non-Malaysian offenders aged below 18 and Malaysian citizens in criminal cases.
As for the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Centres that are set up in all states in Peninsular Malaysia to handle both civil and criminal matters, George said these are operated using Malaysian Bar members’ mandatory annual contribution of RM100 and have sufficient funding.
“This is something the Malaysian Bar is very proud of, it is perhaps the only legal aid structure in the world which is fully funded by the lawyers themselves. We do not get any funding from the government for that programme of ours,” he said.
He confirmed that lawyers at these centres offer their services for free and are only reimbursed for matters such as travel expenses, with the free legal aid provided according to the means test that differs from state to state such as income below RM600 for single individuals and below RM900 for couples in Kuala Lumpur.
Commenting on the Legal Aid Centres’ slight decline in the number of individuals assisted in the 2011 to 2015 period before picking up again in 2016, George said this was because many of the criminal cases previously handled by such centres were instead handled by YBGK lawyers.
The government’s Legal Aid Department also provides free or cheap legal aid, depending on the income levels of those seeking legal assistance.