Legal Aid in ASEAN countries

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The country’s written Constitution incorporates the three pillars of its national philosophy, namely Malay, Islam and Monarchy. Brunei Darussalam provides legal defense only for certain serious offences.


From 1975-1979, Cambodia’s legal system was completely eradicated under the Khmer Rouge regime. Only a handful of lawyers and judges were left after 1979. The country endured inner conflict and instability until a United Nations intervention in the early 1990s. Since then, the legal system has developed with the passing of the Constitution in 1993 and the Criminal Procedure Code in 1998.

Article 38 of the Constitution provides that “Every citizen shall enjoy the right to defense through judicial recourse,” and the Criminal Procedure Code provides for the appointment of an attorney: “The Royal Prosecutor shall inform the accused that he has the right to a lawyer that he chooses or a lawyer appointed in accordance with the Law on the Bar. The chosen or appointed lawyer shall be informed immediately about the selection or appointment. He may study the file and communicate with the accused. Compliance with these procedures shall be noted on the written record; otherwise such procedure shall be deemed as void.” (Article 48).

Currently, two organizations provide legal aid services in Cambodia: Legal Aid of Cambodia and the Cambodian Defenders Project.


The Legal Aid Law was passed on 4 Oct 2011.

The new law defines those eligible for legal aid as underprivileged individuals involved in civil, criminal, or administrative procedure and in non-litigation matters. In addition to the goal of equal access to justice, which fulfills the constitutional right to equality before the law, the new statute is designed to make the judiciary "effective, efficient, and accountable."

The law gives defendants the right to an attorney from the time of arrest and at every stage of examination and requires that defendants in cases involving capital punishment or a prison sentence of 15 years or more be represented by counsel. In cases involving potential sentences of five years or more, the law requires an attorney be appointed if the defendant is indigent and requests counsel. In theory indigent defendants may obtain private legal assistance, and NGO lawyer associations provided free legal representation to indigent defendants. The law extends these rights to all citizens. In some cases procedural protections, including those against forced confessions, were inadequate to ensure a fair trial. With the noted exceptions of Sharia and military trials, trials are public. As in other countries Indonesia has a number of NGOs and private organizations working in the area of legal aid provision.


Laos does not have a specific Legal Aid Act or provision in its Constitution 2003 or Criminal Procedure Code 2004 providing for the appointment of legal counsel to an accused. However, the Constitution clearly states in Article 83 that defendants have the right to defend themselves and lawyers have the right to provide legal assistance to the defendants. Moreover, the Criminal Procedure Code states in Article 7 that the accused person may defend himself or have a lawyer to provide him legal assistance, and that the people’s courts, public prosecutors, interrogators and investigators shall guarantee the right of defense in the proceedings to an accused person in order to protect his legitimate rights and interests. Article 7 can thus be inferred that where a person does not want to defend themselves, the courts have some duty to facilitate counsel for that person. Article 35 of the Criminal Procedure Code gives a lawyer the right to participate in the case from the date of the order to open an investigation.

With the passage and formalization in 2010 of its Master Plan for Law Development to 2020, Laos has begun building the legal framework necessary for addressing citizen freedoms and social justice.

The Lao Bar Association seems to be the primary provider of legal aid in Laos. It is an organization backed by the Ministry of Justice and Asia Foundation, and, among other things, hosts a legal aid hotline for people to call into and also has a mobile legal aid clinic that goes around Vientiane and its surrounding villages. In addition, they have local offices throughout the country providing poor and rural Lao populations with greater access to the legal aid system.


The Legal Aid Act 1971, Legal Aid and Advice Regulations 1970 and 2006 are the principle statutory sources of legislation relating to the provision of free legal aid in Malaysia. The Legal Aid Department 2010 developed from the Legal Aid Bureau, established in September 1970. It's primary objective being to provide legal aid and advisory service to the indigent on legal issues.

The Legal Aid Centre (LAC) also provides free or subsidized legal advice and representation throughout its branches and local offices.


Due to the evolving political situation Myanmar does not have an established legal aid system. The Constitution states that: “An accused shall have the right of defense in accord with the law.” Article 375, Page 153. Burma Lawyers Council, an independent organization does a lot of policy and advocacy, recently started a Legal Assistance Program that provides legal aid to individuals in their own cases.


The 1987 Constitution requires that any person under investigation for the commission of an offence shall have the right to be informed of his right to remain silent and to have competent and independent counsel, preferably of his own choice. If the person cannot afford the services of counsel, he must be provided with one. These rights cannot be waived, except in writing and in the presence of counsel.10 It also provides that an confession obtained through torture, force, violence, threat, intimidation or any other means which vitiates the free will shall be inadmissible in evidence.


Singapore was the first country in South East Asia to have a national legal aid scheme.

The Legal Aid Bureau LAB was set up on 1 July 1958 as a department initially under the Ministry of Labour and Welfare, although it is now under the Ministry of Law. LAB is now governed by the Legal Aid and Advice Act. LAB does not handle criminal proceedings.

The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (‘CLAS’) was set up by the Law Society of Singapore in 1985 to provide legal advice and representation to indigent defendants. However these defendants must already have been charged in Court by the police for an offence to access this scheme. Furthermore CLAS only covers offences under specified statutes.

Under Article 9(3) of the Singapore Constitution: “[w]here a person is arrested, he shall be informed as soon as may be of the grounds of his arrest and shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.” Apparently, Singapore case law has interpreted this to mean that an accused has a right to an attorney from the moment of arrest, but must be balanced with the duty of police to investigate properly.

There have been a number of pro bono and private NGOs established in recent years to fill gaps in the state sponsored schemes.


Under the 2007 Constitution of the Kingdom of Thailand Section 40(8) provides that a person shall, in civil actions, have the right to appropriate legal assistance from State. Section 40(7) provides that the accused, in a criminal case, has the right to defend himself through counsel. This presumes an absence of state legal assistance for criminal cases under Thai law.

There are a number of paralegal and pro bono schemes operating in Thailand. Some of these are working with state backing or through the Lawyers Council to provide legal representation to indigent clients.


In 1997 the National Legal Aid Agency of Vietnam was established under the Ministry of Justice along with 6 Provincial Legal Aid Centers (PLACs).

Since then, PLACs have been set up in all 64 provinces of the country to provide free legal aid services to the poor and other disadvantaged groups. Funds for the operation of the NLAA come from the State budget.

See Criminal Justice Systems Around the World and Legal Aid Systems and Supporting NGOs around the world