Fri, Jul 31, 2009 - Page 8 News List

Hands off the Legal Aid Foundation

By Lin Feng-jeng 林峰正

One of the most discussed topics in judicial circles recently has been the 10th anniversary of the National Judicial Reform Conference. Not only did Judicial Yuan President Lai In-jaw (賴英照) give a speech about it at a public occasion, the Ministry of Justice organized a seminar to hear different opinions. In addition, Academia Sinica held a two-day conference on the subject and even President Ma Ying-jeou (馬英九) jumped on the bandwagon and met judges, prosecutors, lawyers and civil organizations early this month to hear their suggestions for judicial reform.

On the whole, neither the government nor non-governmental organizations are satisfied with judicial reform over the past 10 years. There has been limited improvement and the process has been criticized for being too slow. No wonder prosecutor Eric Chen (陳瑞仁) once said with a sigh that “good people are already worn out.”

From the much-anticipated judge law and the lack of progress with amendments to the Organic Act of Court Organization (法院組織法) — which deals with long-term development of the judicial system — to abuse of power by prosecutors, there is almost no reason to feel optimistic over the prospects of judicial reform.

But even if judicial reform has largely failed to meet expectations, it must be said that the establishment of a legal aid system was a significant achievement. It brought a ray of hope to disadvantaged groups, who can now receive legal aid from lawyers through the government’s assistance, without paying a penny.

The need for such legal aid was agreed upon at the National Judicial Reform Conference in 1999. It passed legislative review without being blocked and passed its third reading in 2003. On July 1 the following year, the Legal Aid Foundation was established.

In only five years, the foundation has helped tens of thousands of poverty-stricken people and provided professional legal assistance to many disadvantaged groups in handling individual cases.

Recently, the Judicial Yuan has been planning an amendment to the Legal Aid Act (法律扶助法) to submit to the legislature. Any new system should be reviewed after five years so that improvements and adjustments can be made. Yet it is baffling that the amendment would require the number of board directors and supervisors assigned by the government to account for more than 50 percent of board members, thus changing the original structure of the board of directors, which consists of more non-governmental directors and supervisors than government officials.

The main reason for this is that the legislature, while reviewing the central government budget at the beginning of this year, passed an attached resolution proposed by the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) caucus. The gist of the resolution is to prevent foundations that recieve more than 50 percent of their funding from the government from turning public funds into private funds, and to prevent them from escaping governmental and legislative oversight. To this end, it requires that more than 50 percent of the board members of such organizations be appointed government officials.

This resolution aimed at legally regulating government-funded incorporated foundations with substantial assets. This is entirely different from the Legal Aid Foundation, which depends on fixed government subsidies. Moreover, the foundation receives donations from the Judicial Yuan each year, and is therefore subject to legislative supervision. Even though the DPP caucus said at the time that the resolution should not apply to the foundation and has sent a letter to the Judicial Yuan to explain this, the Judicial Yuan seems bent on amending the Legal Aid Act.

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