Lawyer-poet who started free legal aid service gets Bar Council’s highest award

Lawyer Cecil Rajendra (left) receiveds the Lifetime Achievement Award from outgoing Bar president George Varughese at the Majestic Hotel, Kuala Lumpur last Saturday.

GEORGE TOWN: A Penang lawyer-turned-poet who was the first in the nation to start a free legal aid centre was honoured by the Bar Council last Saturday with its highest honour – the Lifetime Achievement award.

Cecil Rajendra, 78, who pioneered the first rural legal aid clinic in the country at a wooden shack in Bayan Lepas, was given the award for his impact on the legal service and the community at large.

Speaking to FMT, he recalled the time he founded the Penang Legal Advisory Clinic in 1980 to assist farmers, fishermen and factory workers.

Since then, the London-trained barrister has handled over 150,000 pro-bono cases for low-income earners, including asylum seekers and Orang Asli. He said the marginalised poor were often ignorant of the law and could not afford to hire lawyers.

“At that time, the Bar Council and lawyers objected to the idea of free lawyering services. They used to call me and other volunteer lawyers ‘5 cent and 10 cent’ lawyers.

“And when we had the likes of Lim Kean Chye and Karpal Singh joining us at the clinic, they went silent.

“You can’t go around saying you are a lawyer if you do not believe in justice. Justice should be served on a level playing field, not how much you can pay a lawyer,” he said.

The legal aid clinic became an inspiration to many, and the Bar Council launched its own Legal Aid Scheme in 1983 throughout the country. In 2002, Rajendra launched the first mobile legal aid clinic in a van, travelling across the country into the rural reaches of Orang Asli settlements.

Rajendra said he was genuinely surprised with the Bar’s award when he and the Bar were at loggerheads most of the time.

“I was surprised to be nominated and I am in a state of disbelief. The Bar is a bunch of conservative folks and this award usually goes to retired judges and former Bar presidents.

“Also, I am not your typical lawyer. I don’t dress like them or talk like them. Most lawyers play golf, but I play football. So to have this award gives me mixed feelings, really.

“I am a lawyer by profession, but a poet by compulsion,” he said.

Rajendra had been named Penang’s “Living Heritage Treasure” by the Penang Heritage Trust in 2015 and was also given an award by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia in 2012.

In 2005, he was nominated for the Nobel prize in literature. He is also a fierce critic of overdevelopment and Penang’s diminishing green credentials.

He is an internationally renowned poet with over 20 books published under his name, with the most notable being “The Animal and Insect Act”.

His poems have been published and broadcast in more than 36 countries around the world, translated into several languages and have appeared in publications ranging from the TIME magazine in the US to Kwanza in South Africa.