PETALING JAYA: A lawyer has questioned whether the poor and needy have access to justice when accused persons who are unrepresented are penalised with heavy sentences
Chan Yen Hui said it appeared that magistrates were insensitive to the plight of suspected criminals who were not given the opportunity to get a lawyer to mitigate their cases.
“This makes me wonder whether the government and Bar Council-sponsored criminal legal aid schemes are still functioning,” she said.
Chan said this in response to the sentencing of Mohd Azmi Mohamed Eid to 14 days jail and a fine of RM500 or three months jail for stealing four jars of Nutella chocolate spread worth RM111.96 from a supermarket.
Magistrate Mohamad Firdaus Sadina Ali sentenced him on Friday after the unemployed man pleaded guilty to the charge.
Azmi,32 committed the offence at the Ampang Tesco Supermarket in Kuala Lumpur on Dec 20.
In mitigation, Azmi told the court he had a family to support. He also failed to pay the fine.
Chan, who is also registered with the government funded National Legal Aid Foundation to help the disadvantaged in pre-trial proceedings and to mitigate for lower sentences, said surely there must be a lawyer on duty to help people such as Azmi.
The operation of the foundation was suspended for four months last year due to administrative issues but was back on track early this year.
Chan said the Bar Council’s Legal Aid Committee could assign chambering students to conduct dock brief service to help mitigate on behalf of accused persons.
Most importantly, she said, magistrates must be sensitive and give sufficient time to the accused persons and their family members to engage a lawyer.
Meanwhile, lawyer M Visvanathan said the magistrate could have sentenced Azmi to be bound over with good behaviour or to do community service for the crime, instead of sending him to prison.
“Public interest is not best served by sending the accused to spend time behind bars as that could do more harm than good,” he said.
Visvanathan said the courts must be inclined to hold the view that a sentence that could reform an accused person and turn him from a criminal to an honest person must be favoured.
The lawyer said Azmi’s jail term could also cause more harm as the family had been temporarily deprived of financial support.