Right to Justice and Legal Aid Barriers to the Vulnerable Non-Citizens in Malaysia

Andika Ab.Wahab, Aizat Khairi


Legal aid is the provision of assistance to people who are unable to access legal counsel in the justice system. It is regarded as an important aspect of the right to justice. In Malaysia, migrant workers and refugees are among the most vulnerable population, facing unequal and discriminatory treatments compounded by ineffective mechanisms to guarantee their right to justice. Malaysian legal aid schemes strive to serve various segments of vulnerable population to access legal assistance but tend to confine it to Malaysian citizens. Consequently, migrant worker and refugee population are remained vulnerable, and at risk of their rights being ignored and violated. This study argues that despite the evolution of legal aid schemes into a hybrid system that paves the way for a more robust public-private partnership – it does not result in the expansion of services to the vulnerable non-citizens. Deriving from several key informant and in-depth interview sessions with vulnerable non-citizens in Malaysia, this study highlights four key barriers hindering the provision of legal aid to the vulnerable non-citizens. They are: (i) limited scope of legal aid’s coverage; (ii) financial constraint; (iii) limitation in private lawyers’ participation in legal aid schemes; and (iv) the lack of awareness. Drawing from Rawls’s theory of justice, this study conclude that the failure of social institutions in particular the legal aid providers to provide adequate access to legal aid to the vulnerable non-citizens suggests unfair distribution of justice in Malaysia’s modern social justice system.

Keywords: legal aid, migrant workers, non-citizens, refugees, right to justice


legal aid; right to justice; non-citizens; migrant workers; refugees

Full Text:



Andika, Ab.Wahab. (2018). The Colours of Exploitation: Smuggling of Rohingyas from Myanmar to Malaysia. Akademika 88(1), 5-16.

Asylum Access. (2018). Refugee women and girls in Malaysia: A shadow report by Asylum Access Malaysia. Retrieved from https://asylumaccess.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/ 04/AAM-APRRN-UPR-Submission-Malaysia_FINAL.pdf.

Azharudin, M. D. & Azlinariah, A. (2012). Air Mata Kesengsaraan Rohingya: Identiti, Penindasan dan Pelarian [Tears of Rohingya: Identity, Persecution and Refugees]. Kuala Lumpur: Inteam Publishing.

Benjaminsson, S. J. (2014). Legal empowerment through legal aid: Examining how legal aid promotes legal empowerment for vulnerable women in Uganda. MA thesis, International Development and Management, Lund University, Sweden.

Clean Clothes Campaign. (2013). Malaysia’s submission on migrant workers for the 17th Session of the Universal Period Review (UPR). Recommendations submitted by the Workers Hub for Change (WH4C). Retrieved from https://uprdoc.ohchr.org/uprweb/ downloadfile.aspx?filename=545&file=EnglishTranslation.

Dehaghani, R., & Newman, D. (2017). “We’re Vulnerable Too”: An Alternative Analysis of Vulnerability within English Criminal Legal Aid and Police Custody. Oñati Socio-Legal Series, 7(6), 1199-1228.

Ekmekci, P. E., & Arda, B. (2015). Enhancing John Rawls’s Theory of Justice to Cover Health and Social Determinants of Health. Acta Bioethica, 21(2), 227-236.

Equal Rights Trust. (2014). Equal only in name: The human rights of stateless Rohingya in Malaysia. Retrieved from http://www.equalrightstrust.org/

Government of Malaysia. (1957). Federal Constitution of Malaysia. Kuala Lumpur: The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia.

Government of Malaysia. (1976). Legal Profession Act. Kuala Lumpur: The Commissioner of Law Revision, Malaysia.

Harkins, B. (2016). Review of labour migration policy in Malaysia. A report submitted to International Labour Organization, Bangkok. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/asia/ publications/WCMS_447687/lang--en/index.htm.

International Centre for Law & Legal Studies and Governance Justice Group. (2011). Justice audit Malaysia. Retrieved from http://malaysia.justicemapping.org/?page_id=34.

International Federation for Human Rights. (2000). Undocumented migrants and refugees in Malaysia: Raids, detention and discrimination. Retrieved from https://www.fidh.org/ IMG/pdf/MalaisieCONJ489eng.pdf.

International Labour Organization. (2017). Access to justice for migrant workers in South-East Asia. A report submitted to International Labour Organization, Bangkok. Retrieved from https://www.ilo.org/asia/publications/WCMS_565877/lang--en/ index.htm.

Khoo, A. (2017). Baseline study on legal aid in Malaysia. Unpublished document.

Legal Aid Service Providers’ Network. (2004). Access to justice for all: Report of the baseline and needs analysis survey on legal aid service provisioning in Uganda. A report submitted to World Bank. Retrieved from http://siteresources.worldbank.org/ INTJUSFORPOOR/Resources/LASPNETUgandaAccesstoJusticeforAll.pdf.

Legal Aid Centre. (2017). The Malaysian Bar’s Annual Report 2016/17. Malaysian Bar: Shah Alam.

Legal Aid Department. (2015). Annual report of the Legal Affairs Division of the Prime Minister’s Department. Retrieved from http://www.bheuu.gov.my/index.php/en/ perkhidmatan/annual-report.

Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. (2018). Information on National Legal Aid Foundation in Malaysia (NLAF). Retrieved from http://www.sprm.gov.my/index.php/ pendidikan/media-sosial/twitter-facebook/81-uncategorised/1040-yayasan-bantuan-guaman-kebangsaan-ybgk.

Malaysian Bar. (2017). General Statistics. Retrieved from http://www.malaysianbar.org.my/ general_notices/bc_general_statistics_2013.html.

Misztal, B. (2011). The Challenges of Vulnerability: In Search of Strategies for a Less Vulnerable Social Life. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mizane, A. B., & Alemayehu, M. (2017). Advancing Access to Justice for the Poor and Vulnerable through Legal Clinics in Ethiopia. Mizan Law Review, 11(1), 1-31.

Open Society Foundation. (2016). Leveraging the SDGs for inclusive growth: Delivering access to justice for all. A report submitted to Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development. Retrieved from http://www.oecd.org/about/secretary-general/ leveraging-the-sustainable-development-goals-delivering-access-to-justice-for-all.htm.

Rawls, J. (2005). Theory of Justice. Cambridge. The Belknap Press.

Santhiago, A. (2011). Access to justice for migrant workers in Malaysia – in exit and integration strategies for labour migrants in South East Asia: Putting principles into practices. Unpublished paper, Monash University (Kuala Lumpur).

Thanh, N. C., & Thanh, T. T. Le. 2015. The interconnection between interpretivist paradigm and qualitative methods in education. American Journal of Educational Science 1(1), 24-27.

United Nations (UN). (1951). Convention relating to the Status of Refugees. General Assembly Resolution 2198 (XXI). New York: United Nations.

United Nations (UN). (2013). Guiding Principles and Guidelines on Access to Legal Aid. Retrieved from https://www.unodc.org/documents/justice-and-prison-reform/UN_ principles_and_guidlines_on_access_to_legal_aid.pdf.

United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC). (2016). Global Study on Legal Aid: Global Report. New York: United Nations Development Programme.

Wake, C., & Cheung, T. (2016). Livelihood strategies of Rohingya refugees in Malaysia: We want to live in dignity. A working paper published by Humanitarian Policy Group. Retrieved from https://www.odi.org/sites/odi.org.uk/files/resource-documents/ 10649.pdf


  • There are currently no refbacks.