Fri, Aug 04, 2006 - Page 2 News List

Taipei offers free legal services across the city

PRO BONO Lawyers provide free advice every week-day, offering help to people such as Mark Williams, who is trying to find out how his Taiwanese father died

By Mo Yan-chih  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mark Williams, a 46-year-old Englishman born in Taiwan but raised in England, has been tracing the cause of death of his birth father since his return to Taipei 12 years ago.

Williams believes that his father, a businessman named Cheng Shui-jr (鄭水枝), died of unnatural causes while being detained at the Taipei Prosecutors Office in 1967, but has failed despite repeated attempts to obtain records from police stations, the prosecutors office, the Investigation Bureau and even the Ministry of Justice.

Williams had decided to give up his search, but a pro bono service offered by the Taipei City Civil Affairs Department has offered new hope, and yesterday he sought legal advice from a volunteer lawyer at the Songshan District Office.

The free legal service, which was initiated two years ago and was expanded to the city's 12 districts this year, has helped with over 8,000 cases this year alone, with a success rate of more than 60 percent.

While lawyers in Taiwan are not obligated to perform pro bono services, more than 100 lawyers have committed to offer free legal consultations to Taipei residents -- that would normally cost at least NT$5,000 (US$152) -- on issues ranging from leasing a house, to medical and marriage problems.

Department spokesman Ma Chi-chieh (馬驥傑) said that the top problems people using the service wanted help with included credit card debts, divorce and automobile accidents.

While most of those seeking help are Taiwanese, the program has also seen more foreign brides come in for legal advice on marriage problems -- or simply to complain about their husbands -- after the department encouraged more foreigners to take advantage of the service.

Grace Su (蘇癸旨), the volunteer lawyer who offered advice to Williams yesterday, said she had encountered all kinds of weird questions during the pro bono sessions, but encouraged residents to use the program, which has been able to settle many cases without going to court.

"Some people come in and ask advice ... They just want to hear the answer that they already had in their minds," she said.

As for Williams, he hoped that Su would be able to find a way to force the investigation bureau to open the files on his father, but knew that the chances were slim.

Williams said that his brother-in-law, a prosecutor, had told him he had seen a secret file at the investigation bureau that indicated that Williams' father, who was accused of being a drug dealer, had not died of a heart attack while in custody.

"I am getting to the point where I can only believe what I believe," he told the Taipei Times, adding that the mystery was like an "itch."

Without solid evidence, however, Su said the only file Williams would be able to get was the medical record from the hospital where his father was pronounced dead.

The pro bono program offers services to five clients a day between 9:30am and 11:30am, Monday to Friday at 12 district offices. Reservations are required. For more information, contact the department at (02) 2720-6813.

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