“The fact that people are poor or discriminate against doesn’t necessarily endow them with any special qualities of justice, nobility, charity or compassion.” – Saul Alinsky
I don’t expect a whole lot of gratitude from my legal aid clients. Not that I don’t care for it. But it would be unfair to do otherwise. It is enough if they shake my hand and thank me for my efforts when I am done. Most of them do that. It feels good when they give a thumbs up. On occasions a meal is strongly insisted upon, and if I have time I oblige.
Then there are those utter cads. I am fortunate that it occurred only once. It was a costly lesson though.
I was appointed to act for a man and his wife. He was one of those emasculated looking security guards that sit slumped in defeat in their small plastic seat the rifle slung around their thin body dressed in a uniform two sizes bigger outside a small supermarket, or toll, or jewelery shops. She was a housewife. Never met her. Story went they used to stay in a squatter area in Kuala Lumpur. They were relocated and allocated an apartment for which they were given a loan by a government related finance company to purchase. It had low monthly instalments.
Theoretically his pay would be able to cover it, but he would be tight. No small change even. He didn’t earn much. He had a healthy strapping son. 20 – 22 years old. But he wasn’t studying, didn’t work and did nothing of use except occasionally turning up for meetings. I asked the man once why he didn’t ask his son to earn since he young and healthy while he was already hitting his early sixties. He doesn’t listen to me, was his reply.
The situation when I got to them was like this. He was being evicted out of his apartment because he was in serious default with his loan. A judgment in default had been obtained against them. An auction had taken place when the bank force sold their apartment to an individual I’ll call, the landlord. The landlord had signed the sale and purchase agreements and taken legal ownership of the property and now wanted to evict my clients so he could rent the place out. As they were of meager education and not the type to meticulously peruse the agreement, they ignored all the legal notices thinking it would just go away. We were basically at the tale end of the whole process of legal ownership before they finally woke up.
I asked him whether he could leave the house and stay with any of his family. He had asked around and only one relative had offered and only at a rate of RM 600.00 per month for board only. In the meantime I managed to negotiate as low a rental deal with the landlord. RM 650.00 per month. The problem was he could not afford either. After accounting for the necessities he didn’t even have a hundred left. So they were too broke to move or to stay. Which also meant they had no money to pay for any of the filing fees, search fees, etc.
When I looked closer into the auction proceedings I noted that the sale of the apartment yielded an excess of RM 20,000.00 or so. The finance company had simply kept quiet about the excess after the sale and did not inform them of the excess. Either that or they threw away the notice. After several notices and threats of legal action, they agreed to settle and pay the monies out to them. This took time so I was doing my best to hold off the vacancy proceedings by futilely attacking the judgment it was premised on, and trying to set aside all the other orders obtained by the finance company and the landlord. My clients resolved to leave the place as soon as they had the money.
Once I secured the finance company’s agreement to refund the money to my clients, I went about settling all the other cases immediately. After much negotiation I managed to settle all the landlord’s costs for about just over a thousand. That was very generous of him considering how much he must have had to pay his lawyers and how much trouble he was put to. Not only that I had also advanced about over a thousand ringgit as well for all the disbursements and filing fees. When I finally brought them the cheque made out to them for the excess, I reminded them of these amounts which had to be paid immediately once they cashed it.
Once they received the money, he did not come to see me or call me. He did not answer my calls. His son who still picked up at first used to say his father was coming soon. This went on for about two weeks when he stopped answering my calls. I had to apologize to the lawyer acting for the landlord. I had assured her that the costs would be paid once they received the money. So I told her to tell her client if it made him feel any better that I got screwed over too. Because you know, people love it when lawyers get the wrong end of the stick.
You may have noticed my error by now. I should have made finance company pay the cheque to me and pay it out to the landlord’s lawyers, reimburse myself and refund the balance. In my naivete and wanting to show that I wasn’t short changing them of anything since it was in their control (because you know, many people say they don’t trust lawyers even though an and ironic immediate legal relationship of trust is imposed when they appoint one that accepts). I was as angry at myself as I was at them.
But that’s what I got for simply assuming that because they are oppressed or poor they are necessarily trustworthy or honest. Each person must be taken or considered on his or her own without preconceptions. And overlooking a basic lesson: money should be paid to you as the lawyer first. Those two lessons cost me more than a thousand so best get it here for free.
I also was now aware that the poor usually have little understanding about their legal obligations especially these particular clients. They were squatters who did not have to deal with loan payments, water and electricity bills before. But they had to now pay for those things when they were relocated into the apartment. These were issues they did not have to deal with and did not know how to either.
Take for instance their obligation to pay the loan. The man claimed that he was making payment but what he didn’t mention at first was that he made one lump sum payment when he had money and failed to service the loan monthly. He thought he could just pay as and when he had money. Even though he signed the loan agreement, he was not explained his obligations under it. So for a while he was outraged the bank sold his land despite him paying the instalments until I explained the agreement to him. Incidents like this suggest that the government must do more to acclimatize and raise awareness amongst those squatters they move into apartments about their new responsibilities and help them prepare for it. The should be informed about all the other things they would have to pay upon their moving into the allocated housing.
A few months later I heard they moved out and disappeared. I returned the file to the legal aid clinic with a request that they be blacklisted. The request was allowed a few weeks later.
Fahri Azzat was thankful that event did not put him off taking on legal aid cases. He seriously thought of giving it up because of this case. It is no fun being betrayed or taken advantage of so blatantly after going out of one’s way to help. He believes many of those in pro-bono/legal aid side shares his views on the manner of being thanked.