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Understanding Our Legal Aid Commission

Understanding Our Legal Aid Commission
Director Legal Aid Commission Shahin Ali
May 26
11:29 2018

Empowering those who are socially and economically challenged is a hallmark of a democracy that the Commission does through its outreach programmes.

Access to justice has been a key part of the Bainimarama-Government and later the FijiFirst Government.

A lot of effort has gone into providing the common man and woman access to the legal system. One of the ways has been to increase Legal Aid presence around the country.

The Legal Aid Commission is an independent statutory body established by the Legal Aid Act of 1996. For the first time ever, it has been given constitutional recognition under the 2013 Fijian Constitution.

The Commission is mandated to provide free legal services to people who cannot afford the services of a private legal practitioner and is a State-funded organization, which is now the largest law firm in the country providing free legal services to members of the public in all major towns and cities, including the rural and remote areas as well as the islands.

Before the Bainimarama Government embarked on the mission to increase Legal Aid presence in Fiji, the Commission had five branches, mainly in urban centres.

Today, there are 17 branches throughout Fiji. There are two in Suva, one each in Navua, Sigatoka, Nadi, Lautoka, Ba, Tavua, Rakiraki, Korovou, Nausori, Nasinu, Labasa, Nabouwalu, Savusavu, Taveuni, and Levuka.

There are five additional branches opening in the next few months in Rotuma, Kadavu, Keyasi, Vunidawa, and Seaqaqa.

The Seaqaqa office is currently being refurnished and will be ready for operation by early July. For Keyasi, Vunidawa, Rotuma, and Kadavu, architectural plans are complete and arrangements are being made to finalise tenancy agreements as well as selecting a vendor to carry out refurbishment works in each of these branches.

In 2017, more than 16,000 people applied for legal aid assistance while more than 22,000 people were given legal advisory services. There were around 8000 people given duty solicitor services.

From January 1, 2018 to April 30, 2018, a total of 6343 people have applied for assistance while 9370 people have been served through the free legal advisory services.

Director Legal Aid Shahin Ali says a true democracy is one where the State ensures adequate funding is made available to an independent Legal Aid Commission, which caters for the legal needs of citizens who would otherwise go unassisted.

“In Fiji’s case, the State has undoubtedly provided immense financial support to enable the Commission to open branches, recruit lawyers, corporate and support staff to be able to serve impoverished Fijians with their legal problems,” Mr Ali said.

The mark of a true democracy and rule of law is when impoverished citizens are able to access justice easily and readily. Access to justice does not necessarily mean assistance in court, but rather, being able to access the services of the Legal Aid Commission, obtain free independent legal advice, legal information, and other forms of assistance which the impoverished would otherwise have to pay money for. Empowering those who are socially and economically challenged is another hallmark of a democracy which the Legal Aid Commission does through its community awareness programmes in reaching out to members of the public.

Legal representation should not be limited to those who are rich and privileged. In fact, it should be accessible to those who are impoverished. Equal access to justice is equally important and the Constitution ensures this through various provisions.

The Legal Aid Commission is one of the very few such institutions in the world that has incorporated provisions of the “United Nations Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid in Criminal Justice Systems” as part of its Strategic Plan.

SERVICES

The range of free legal services provided by the Commission include:

  •  egal advice on all areas of the law which is available to everyone and there is no need to formally apply or qualify under the means test. This service is available to anyone: a walk-in service.
  •  duty solicitor services under the Duty Solicitor Scheme is available as a “one-off” assistance to those who require assistance instantaneously in Court for bails, or mitigations, or in family cases such as urgent child recovery, stop departure orders, or domestic violence matters, to mention a few, where orders are needed as an urgent and immediate relief. For this service, a person does not need to apply and qualify under the eligibility criteria hence anyone seeking assistance can simply request it through any of the branches. It’s a “one-off” assistance and for any further assistance, the person must formally apply. This service is restricted to family and criminal law matters and does not extend to civil law cases.
  •  Legal representation in court is available to those who qualify under the means test which is currently set at a threshold of $15,000 net disposable income per annum. The means test is applicable to all applicants seeking assistance in Family, Criminal, and or Civil Law matters. For Civil Law matters which the Commission does not normally undertake, a further merits test is carried out before a decision is made on whether to grant assistance in that matter and taking into consideration whether injustice would occur if assistance was not granted.
  •  Witnessing/attestation of various documents;
  •  Brief-Out Scheme – Conflict of Interest Matters: Where a matter may present itself as a conflict of interest, the case file of the client will be briefed-out to a private legal practitioner under the Commission’s Brief-Out Scheme. The Commission has an approved panel of private legal practitioners who undertake conflict matters on behalf of the Commission. The professional service fees for the private legal practitioner are paid by the Commission at no cost to the client. For example, let’s say that the husband applied first and was able to secure legal aid assistance hence he would be represented by a lawyer of the Commission. The wife who came to apply for assistance later and also qualifies for legal aid would also be granted assistance. However, her case file would be briefed out to a private lawyer on the Commission’s panel of lawyers under the Brief-Out Scheme. The fees of the lawyer would be paid by the Commission, and not the client. This system was set up to ensure that everyone who qualified for assistance was not deprived of legal representation and in doing so, we are providing greater access to justice for all Fijians who would otherwise get no legal assistance.
  •  Filling of court forms;
  •  Community awareness programs
  •  Juvenile offenders: are given priority and the Commission is flexible with their applications and means assessment. The Commission endeavours to keep juveniles out of the prison system and our service delivery in this area is focussed towards assisting the court and the juvenile while in court as well.

In respect of family law matters, the Commission undertakes all types of matters which fall under the ambit of the Family Law Act including the Domestic Violence Act in respect of DVRO matters as well as adoption matters.

The Commission provides services in all areas of Criminal Law.

As for Civil Law matters, the Commission provides assistance in all estate related matters such as taking out probate grants, letters of administration, transmission by death, transfers, record of death, drafting of wills, etc.

They also offer assistance in getting a Power of Attorney document drawn up, Deed Poll if you wish to change your name, lodgement of caveats, and so on.

In respect of other general civil matters such as eviction, vacant possession, land and or tenancy related disputes, negligence cases, personal injury, employment disputes, etc., the Commission may provide assistance provided the applicant qualifies on both the means and merits test.

As of January 2018, separate units have been created in the headquarters: Civil, family, and criminal litigation units, which specialise in their respective areas of practice. An Appeals Unit focuses on appeal matters before the Court of Appeal and Supreme Court.

They are therefore now setting the platform for the future for the Commission through the establishment of units, which will specialise in the various areas of practice to ensure that they provide professional, efficient, and more importantly, quality legal services throughout all our centres.

Tomorrow: First Hour Procedure and improving access to justice

jyotip@fijisun.com.fj

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