Legal aid is one of the major tools for human rights protection. It plays vital role in countries where massive human rights violations occur. It continues to play such role in many countries in the region especially at this time of economic and social crises.
During the second half of 2001, regional and national activities on legal aid were held. These activities
The Human Rights Committee of the Law Association for Asia and the Pacific (LAWASIA), LAWASIA-Philippines and the Integrated Bar of the Philippines convened the "Asia-Pacific Workshop on Legal Aid in Manila on 22-24 June 2001.
The workshop aimed at (1) enhancing awareness of fundamental human rights; (2) developing strategies for the recognition of new rights and the enforcement of existing ones, especially those regarding women, children and migrants; (3) formulating strategic alliances to ensure equal standing before the law for vulnerable sectors, in particular, the establishment of an arrangement among law associations in the Asia-Pacific region for mutual protection and assistance of nationals; and (4) establishing mechanisms, including a legal aid foundation, to financially assist legal aid and other programs seeking equal protection and enforcement of rights.
One hundred twenty-seven participants attended the workshop. They were mainly lawyers and representatives of bar associations, including the Japan Legal Aid Association, National Legal Aid Centre (Malaysia), the Bar Association of India, Law Council of Australia, Japan Federation of Bar Associations, Pakistan Bar Council, Law Society of Thailand, Jakarta Legal Aid Institute, and China Legal Aid Center. There were also representatives of government agencies and NGOs, which provide sectoral legal aid services such as the Ministry of Labor, the Department of Social Welfare (Philippines), the Overseas Workers Welfare Assistance (Philippines) and a representative from the coalition of legal assistance NGOs in the Philippines (the Alternative Law Groups). Representatives of a number of NGOs focusing on migrant, women and child rights issues also attended.
The participants agreed that there is a need for an Asia-Pacific regional legal aid system to promote and enforce human rights. The LAWASIA Human Rights Committee was requested to work on this undertaking, both as to its focus and form. It was suggested that in the establishment of a legal aid system, the Committee should focus on the following areas: (a) Access to justice and legal aid; (b) Women, migrants, children and indigenous peoples; and (c) Domestic implementation of international human rights standards.
On access to justice, the participants stressed the need for access to legal aid for people regardless of nationality and national borders. It was agreed that access to justice should be seen in a broader context with legal aid as only one form of achieving justice. It was emphasized that efforts towards greater access to justice must address social inequalities and enforce the enjoyment of all human rights ﾐ civil, cultural economic, political, and social.
Recognizing the magnitude of human rights issues in the region, the participants agreed to focus on the protection of the rights of vulnerable groups, namely the rights of women, migrants, children and indigenous peoples, as these are common issues of concern within the region.
On the domestic implementation of international human rights standards, the participants sought the initiation of a campaign to address the low level of ratification of international human rights instruments in the Asia-Pacific region. For those countries that have ratified the instruments, the participants agreed to call for the domestic implementation of international human rights standards. Suggestions on domestic implementation activities include (1) dissemination of the Bangalore Principles which provide for the consideration of international law in the absence or insufficiency of municipal laws; (2) training of lawyers on the use of international standards in the local contexts; and (3) lobbying legislatures to pass laws incorporating these international standards.
There were various suggestions regarding the form of the Asia-Pacific legal aid system. It may include: (1) an arrangement based on a memorandum of cooperation on the provision of legal aid in the Asia-Pacific region by LAWASIA member bar associations and/or national legal aid centers; (2) a foundation or an association that focuses on the fundraising aspects of the legal aid initiative; and (3) a pool of volunteer lawyers, starting with the participants, as the initial group for the legal aid mechanism.
In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of its establishment, the Japan Legal Aid Association (JLAA) held the "The Pan-Pacific Legal Aid Conference" Multi Dimensional Needs for Legal Servicesﾓ on 6-7 December 2001 in Tokyo.
The conference took up several issues including:
a. Legal Aid Reform
b. Emerging Legal Aid Activities in East and South East Asia
c. Legal Aid for People with Special Needs
d. Community Clinic Activities of Universities
e. International Assistance in Legal Aid.
There were participants from Asian (Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Japan, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand, and Vietnam), Pacific (Australia), European (United Kingdom) and North American (Canada and the United States of America) countries. The participants represent government legal aid offices, NGOs and university legal aid clinics.
The presentations reviewed legal aid systems in Asia-Pacific such as those in South Korea, China, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Cambodia, Indonesia and Australia. Several problems affecting the legal aid system were identified such as limited number of lawyers who can provide the service, lack of training programs to develop legal skills and knowledge of legal aid program staff, and funding limitation. These problems relate to the existence of laws sanctioning legal aid, government financial support, the large demand for legal services from poorer sectors of society, and legal education in general.
One common challenge to legal aid programs is financial sustainability. None of the legal aid programs presented in the conference, including those in the US, Canada, Britain, Australia and Japan, can assure themselves of financial support. A major portion of the financial support for legal aid programs is government subsidy. Independent financial sustainability of legal aid programs is therefore rightly pointed out as a myth.
Another challenge facing legal aid programs is maintenance of quality of service. Several examples from United Kingdom and Canada were provided on how this concern is addressed.
In Malaysia, the Bar Council's Human Rights Committee held a human rights training for its members. There were presentations on international human rights standards and mechanisms, domestic human rights work, and related legal skills. It was the first training on human rights organized by the Malaysian Bar Council. It introduced many member-lawyers (who mainly do private law practice) to human rights work.
These activities highlighted the practical problems that continuously confront legal aid programs, not only in Asia-Pacific but in other regions of the world as well. But more importantly, from a human rights perspective, they represent the growing attention being given to human rights by the legal community.
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