Legal Aid Law falls short of helping needy

It has been three years since the Legal Aid Law took effect (January 1, 2007), but very few in Ho Chi Minh City have benefited from it, said juridical officials at a recent conference of the Interoffice Coordinating Council for Legal Aid in Proceedings in HCM City.

Under the law, the poor, those who contributed to the country’s revolution, the disabled, and vulnerable and ethnic minority children in disadvantageous areas are entitled to free legal consultancy, legal proceedings, and outside legal representation.

However, the number of actual beneficiaries of the free services is very few, said many participants at the conference.

A man reads information about legal aid posted at the office of the HCMC People’s Court. Many juridical officials said at a recent conference that the Legal Aid Law aimed at helping vulnerable groups has yet to prove effective. (Photo: SGGP)

In 2009, the HCM City Center for State Legal Assistance took part in the procedural process of 412 criminal, civil and administrative cases related to the groups eligible for free aid. Of the cases, juveniles accounted for 80 percent, poor people 15 percent, and ethnic minority people 5 percent.

However, these figures were far lower than the actual number of people who needed legal aid. The main reason is that the law has not been broadly introduced to the public, the conference agreed.

Nguyen Thi Thanh Mai, deputy chief of the secretariat of the municipal Steering Committee for Hunger Eradication and Poverty Alleviation, said, “There was a case in which information about legal aid was posted at a cultural house, where the poor rarely set foot. Meanwhile, it should have been posted at the office of the people’s committee.”

People often hesitate to seek help from a legal aid center while officials in charge of the services usually wait for people to come to them, she said.

Ms. Mai, also a jurywoman who has taken part in many hearings, said: “In many cases, only through checking a defendant’s record at court does the judge realize they were eligible for free legal aid, but had no lawyer at the hearing.”

Such individuals often live in outlying districts like Binh Chanh, Hoc Mon, and Cu Chi, Ms. Mai added.

There were many disputes in which reconcilement could have been successful if the person concerned had been given legal aid right from the start, she said.

A representative of the HCM City People’s Court suggested a new article be added to several laws stating: “If the person involved in the proceedings is an eligible beneficiary of free legal aid, that person must be informed as to their rights.”

This should be applied to Civil Procedure Code, Marriage and Family Law, Administrative Law, and Labor Code, said the representative.

Meanwhile, Standing Deputy Chairman of the Interoffice Coordinating Council for Legal Aid in Proceedings in HCM City, Ha Phuoc Tai, blamed the low success of the law on a lack of active coordination between agencies taking part in the procedural process.

As a result, contradictions arose between those agencies causing impediments to courts in hearings, he said.

Legal aid is aimed at protecting legitimate rights and interests of those with poor financial ability and at the same time improving the public’s knowledge of law. Therefore, experts say obstacles to the enforcement of the Legal Aid Law must be removed soon to actually bring it to life.

By Ai Chan – Translated by Truc Thinh

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