Amid the furor and excitement surrounding some of the more controversial motions at the 69th Annual General Meeting of the Malaysian Bar on 14 March 2015, one resolution was passed without much fanfare in the media. The motion in particular was a call for the provision of legal aid and assistance to workers.
The motion called for the following resolutions to be passed:
- That Malaysian Bar, through its Legal Aid Centers, extends the services of providing advice, assistance and legal representation for all workers with basic monthly salary of less than RM3,000 from the point of intending to file complaint at the Human Resource Departments(Labour Offices) or other avenues of justice to the full settlement of the said cases.
- The Malaysian Bar shall also do the needful to make the National Legal Aid Foundation extend its services to also worker rights violations
- The Bar Council also do the needful to create awareness of, and if possible, provide training on, worker rights, including how to use all available channels to access for justice for workers, including providing necessary training for lawyers, workers and trade unions.
- That the Bar Council shall call upon Malaysia to reviews all existing labour legislations, also with a view of providing more deterrent penalties for employers and just remedies for workers who have been exploited or cheated by employers.
The proposal is commendable as the main difficulties faced by workers (especially those in the lower income categories) is the payment of legal fees required when they seek advice, or try to pursue their claim in court. Most of employer-employee disputes will invariable revolve around non-payment of wages, or unfair dismissal. In both cases, the chief complaint of the worker would be that they have been deprived of their livelihood due to unfair actions of the employer. Given that context to their financial background, it is not difficult to see how these workers may not be in a position to afford legal fees. These workers’ options are narrowed further considering that the Malaysian Legal Profession Act prohibits lawyers from charging fees “only in the event of success”.
Lawyers as professionals are entitled to charge fees for services rendered; but those earning a lower salary may not be able to pay the fees no matter how reasonable. The Kuala Lumpur Legal Aid Center currently adopts a “means test” to determine whether an individual qualifies for legal aid. The current test is that:
- the individual cannot have a monthly income (after deduction of monthly expenses) of more than RM650 (single) or RM900 (married couple)
- the individual cannot own property that exceeds the following threshold:
- House (RM45,000)
- Car (RM20,000)
- Motorcycle (RM4,500)
- Savings (RM5,000)
As evidenced above, the means test will disqualify nearly all but those in the most dire of financial situations. There are certainly many individuals who do not fall within the “means test” that are nevertheless hard pressed to afford legal fees to pursue what could be a legitimate claim or grievance. Extending the provision of legal aid centers to all workers with a basic salary of less than RM3,000 is a good step towards providing further access to justice.