YANGON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lawyers in Myanmar are embarking on a pilot project to help the country’s poor in criminal cases, inspired by South Africa’s legal aid system where lawyers employed by a publicly-funded but independent board assist the poor for free.
Two Justice Centres will be set up with the help of Pyoe Pin, a U.K. Government-funded programme, to help establish the rule of law in the impoverished Southeast Asian country which has emerged from decades of military rule to embark on ambitious reforms while trying to quell corruption, sectarian violence, and ethnic conflicts.
After 50 years of dictatorship and repressive laws that allowed the rich and powerful to act with impunity, there is now an emphasis on establishing the rule of law to ensure Myanmar’s successful transition to democracy.
The centres would be established in two commercial centres – Yangon and Mawlamyaing, the capital of Mon State in eastern Myanmar – in the next few months, said Kyaw Min Sann, legal adviser to Pyoe Pin.
“Legal aid is needed in Myanmar because we have many poor people in the country,” he told Thomson Reuters Foundation.
“The poor don’t have the money to defend themselves … When one side has no lawyers in court but the other side does, there’s no equality and it’s difficult to get access to justice. There are many cases like this in Myanmar,” he added.
Legal aid for criminal cases would ensure there was a fair trial, he said.
While Myanmar’s constitution says an accused should be defended by a lawyer in cases where the maximum penalty is death, there is currently no legal requirement guaranteeing an accused person legal assistance for other offences.
A recent assessment of the rule of law recommended that the Myanmar government “should develop a strategic plan for instituting a national criminal defence and legal aid system”.
SOUTH AFRICAN MODEL ‘LEADING EXAMPLE’
In June 2012, a delegation from Myanmar with representatives from the office of the Attorney General, the Supreme Court, Constitutional Tribunal, civil society groups and Myanmar Legal Aid Network (MLAW), visited South Africa. Kyaw Min Sann was one of them.
The group was impressed with what it saw.
Mandated by the country’s constitution, the independent Legal Aid South Africa was established by the Legal Aid Act of 1969. It started by using lawyers in private practices to represent those needing legal aid.
In the 1990s it took on the current model where lawyers, paralegals, and other staff employed by Legal Aid South Africa provide assistance through Justice Centres set up near courts and satellite offices in smaller towns and remote areas.
“Legal aid in South Africa is considered one of the world’s leading examples of affordable and effective legal aid, particularly for developing nations,” said a report about the trip.
There are now 64 Justice Centres and 64 satellite offices around the country that deal with up to half a million cases a year. The organisation is transparent and publishes its annual reports on its website, said Kyaw Min Sann.
Various groups, including opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) and Myanmar Lawyer Network as well as the relatively new MLAW, provide free legal assistance. The Justice Centre approach, however, would be the first time legal aid was rolled out systematically and throughout the country.
Kyaw Min Sann said Yangon and Mawlamyaing were chosen as two pilot cities because they are accessible and have long-established Bar Associations that date back to the British colonial times.
“We’re going to send two directors and two office managers for these centres to South Africa for two months for training. After they come back, we’ll find offices,” he said.
Each Justice Centre will have about 15 employees, 12 of whom will be lawyers. Pyoe Pin and partners are also looking at the possibility of setting up two satellite offices staffed with paralegals. After two years, the results will be analysed.
“If the results are good, then the aim is to have them throughout the country to help establish rule of law,” said Kyaw Min Sann.
“Justice has three foundations - legal officials, private lawyers, and the courts,” he said.
“Only if these three legs are stable will there be justice and a free trial. So legal aid is essential for access to justice,” he added.