The Development of Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) and its Social Impacts in Taiwan (2011-05-06)
The Development of Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) and its Social Impacts in Taiwan
Yu-Shan Chang (UCL MPhil Student, Former project-based voluntary lawyer of LAF Taipei Branch Office)
1. Historical Background
1.1 From 1970s to 2004: fragmented publicly funded legal services mainly focused on legal advice
Publicly funded legal services in Taiwan were initiated in the 1970s. First, some voluntary lawyers and students established a Legal Services Centre in Taipei after analysis of the legal aid system in the United States, providing free legal services for the disadvantaged. Following this, similar models were formed in Taichung and Tainan. In 1979, the first legal clinics started operating in the National Taiwan University. A pioneer professor led law school students to provide free legal advice for citizens. Thereafter, the bar councils and local authorities all over the country gradually started to provide free legal advice services for general citizens cooperatively or respectively.
Most of the publicly funded legal services mentioned above were limited to verbal legal advice. Resources for publicly funded legal representation in court proceedings for disadvantaged were available only as exceptions. For example, the highest judicial administration, Judicial Yuan, provided funding for Bar Association to establish a duty defender scheme in criminal law from 1999. This was in order to solve the insufficient supply of in-house public defenders; the Council of Labor Affairs and some city councils subsidise legal fees for filing lawsuits if the plaintiff worker meets certain conditions. In a word, the publicly funded legal services in Taiwan was fragmented with limited budgets and mainly focused on legal advice provision in the late twentieth century.
1.2 The enactment of the Legal Aid Act and establishment of the Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) in 2004
In order to enforce the constitutional right of equal access to justice in Taiwan, the Judicial Reform Foundation, Taipei Bar Association, and Taiwan Association for Human Rights, convened a group to study legal aid systems in different jurisdictions and formulated the agenda to promote the legal aid system. With the strong support of the Judicial Yuan, the Legal Aid Act was enacted and promulgated in January 2004, and then the Legal Aid Foundation (LAF) under the Act ultimately began operation on 1st July 2004. It was not until the establishment of LAF that a comprehensive range of legal aid services for the disadvantaged in Taiwan has been provided by a single organisation with a comparatively adequate budget. In the first stage, there were five branch offices established in Taipei, Taichung, Tainan, Kaohsiung and Hualian. And then another fourteen branch offices opened in 2005. At this moment, there are 21 branch offices all over the country.
2. An overview of business development of LAF in the past few years
In the past few years, the LAF has established a system to provide legal representation and legal advice services for the eligible disadvantaged. In addition, it involved itself greatly in social and judicial reform projects and some significant cases.
2.1 Regular Legal Aid Business
According to section two of the Legal Aid Act, the legal aid services provided by LAF include drafting of legal documents, legal advice, mediation and negotiation, and representation in litigation or arbitration. The types of legal proceedings include civil, criminal and administrative proceedings.
In the initial stage, since most of the other publicly funded legal services provided free advice, LAF decided to provide most of the resources for legal representation. From 2004 to 2008, the proportion of legal representation cases is about 80%. The applicants would visit branch offices to apply for approval, and an assessment committee (usually consisting of 3 voluntary lawyers) would decide on whether to approve and a full or partial grant after a means and merit test. Then the branch offices would assign a project-based voluntary lawyer to take charge of the case.
However, after visiting the law centres in the UK in 2006, the Taipei branch office piloted specialist legal advice in the areas of immigration, occupational injuries, welfare benefit for disabilities, in collaboration with several social welfare agencies in September 2007. The Taipei branch office arranged certain voluntary lawyers to provide regular outreach advice services directly at the agencies, in order to provide one-stop services for the disadvantaged.
Since April 2009, in order to respond to the financial recession and to solve clients’ problems in preventative stage, LAF has expanded legal advice services from specialist advice to general advice, and not only provide advice at each branch office, but also at courts, city or county councils, household registration offices, prisons, NGOs and even universities with clinical legal education programmes. According to the LAF annual report in 2009, the expansion of legal advice provision resulted in the increase of application cases, which is understood to be the result of the promotion effect and raising awareness of legal problems.
2.2 Participation in social reform projects and significant cases
In addition to the legal representation and advice, LAF has greatly participated in human rights issues and even have involved in the legislation process, thus facilitating social reform. For example, in 2006, the unreasonable interest rates between cardholders and banks resulted in several incidents of suicide. Thus, the LAF not only provide legal aid for card debtors, but also deeply involved in the enactment of the Card Debt Clearance Act and the assistance for the debtors to clear the debt under the new scheme. The other projects related to social reform are such as provision of duty lawyers for assistance during suspects’ first interviews at police stations and prosecutors’ offices; cooperation with the Alliance to End the Death Penalty; assistance for victims of human trafficking; amendment of the occupational injuries legislation and so forth.
Furthermore, LAF has been involved in some significant human rights or social justice cases, where they provided representation and assistance to victims in court proceedings. For instance, the RCA case in which 529 plaintiffs claimed upwards of NT 2,400,000,000 dollars in damages for occupational injuries; the CPDC pollution case which involved residents who lived with toxic wastes for over 60 years; the Lo-Sheng Sanatorium case in which leprosy patients claimed State compensation for infringements of human rights due to compulsory quarantine and sterilisation for 70 years.
3. Impacts of LAF on the whole society and legal professionals
According to my observations, the establishment and development of LAF has brought some positive impacts to the whole society. Firstly, with the improved funding, it has increased comprehensive support and provided equal access to justice for the disadvantaged. Secondly, it has awakened the whole society to issues of human rights and pioneered in the reform. With more adequate funding and human resources, LAF stands at a better position to coordinate legal professionals and NGOs, which has helped to identify the problems of the vulnerable and facilitated the practitioners’ participation in the social or judicial reform. Thirdly, it has facilitated the integration of different existing legal services resources. For instance, LAF has some joint-funding projects collaborating with different legal services funders, such as the Council of Labor Affairs, Taipei City Council and Taipei Bar Association, and also an informal relationship with Association for Victims Support.
In addition to the impacts on the society, LAF has brought new changes to the legal professionals as well. Since the head account of salaried lawyers is currently limited so far, most of the regular legal aid services and participation in significant cases or projects requires the involvement of project-based voluntary lawyers. Therefore, private practitioners have more opportunities to work together as groups in a more systematic way, which helps them to share professional experiences and learn mutually from each other. In addition, since the traditional training and qualification of legal professionals in Taiwan is much more generalised, the training course and case assignment in specific issues by LAF has helped some lawyers to develop their own specialisation. Furthermore, LAF has started the quality assessment of the voluntary lawyers. Although with limited budget the quality control was not fully conducted, it still provided some indicators and identified a few outstanding and notorious lawyers which encouraged the voluntary lawyers involved and protected the consumers as well. How to increase the quality and credit of the project-based voluntary lawyers is definitely one of the most important tasks in the future.
4. The challenges in the future
In the past few years, LAF has made progress in realizing the human rights of the disadvantaged and built collaborative network with NGOs. This is partly because most leading officers were the pro bono lawyers who had been deeply involved in legal aid. However, after the re-election of board of directors in 2009, the representatives from Judicial Yuan and its supporters won a majority. Thus, the independence and continuous involvements in human rights and social reform has been greatly challenged by an alliance consisted of twenty-two NGOs in April 2010. Although Judicial Yuan denied its intervention in LAF, the business development, efficiency and independence is still worth observing and monitoring in the future.