Imagine you are a 14-year-old Thai teenager. You come from a broken home, you've been living on the streets, beaten and raped, and yet you find yourself standing before a judge charged with a list of crimes.
No one has told you that you have the right to a legal defense - and explained to you what that means. If you are lucky, your mother is there to try and help, but she's got a grade six education at best and is as scared of the legal trappings of the court as you are.
The situation is hardly fair even before the judicial process kicks in. But Father Joe Maier's Human Development Center (HDC), wants to change all that with a project initiated by Sophie Hsia (pronounced Shaw), a law student from McGill University.
Ms Hsia spent the last summer working in Bangkok trying to set up Legal Aid Clinic for street children in conjunction with the HDC. Ms Hsia learned about the HDC through a friend in Canada and contacted Fr Joe, who arranged for her to come and work on setting up the Legal Aid Clinic.
"I did some research on Thai law before I came here, so I knew the penal code was ancient in its approach, that it was very conservative and it wasn't very beneficial to women as it has so many loopholes," Ms Hsia said.
"It makes it very difficult to have charges stick in, for example, a sexual assault case. But with the advent of the new constitution, Thai people are attempting a major overhaul of their legal system.
"What we are trying to do is take street kids out of the penal system altogether. If we can't keep them out because of the severity of the crime they are charged with, then we want to represent them so their rights are safeguarded and observed."
Few, if any, street children can afford to pay for someone to represent them if they are arrested. And the overworked state representatives that might be assigned to their case are in an awkward position for properly defending the rights of their clients.
"They are actually representing the state even though they are supposedly representing the child, because the state is paying their salary," said Ms Hsia. "It's a hard system because these kids don't have anyone from their family representing them and in some cases they don't have family members around any more. They don't know what their rights are, and they don't know they are entitled to legal aid," she said.
The HDC and Ms Hsia hope the Legal Aid Clinic, when up and running, can better protect street children.
"We want to hire two lawyers, three social workers, and four paralegals (legal aid experts)," she said.
"We will have two lawyers at the court every day, along with two social workers, because the children obviously have psychological needs that need to be addressed."
According to the plan, one social worker plus two paralegals will man a legal aid hot-line.
"We have a good relationship with the police. They are already sending us hilltribe girls and children. The jails are overflowing - they are already at double capacity, and HDC is recognized as one of the major facilities for street kids," said Ms Hsia. "That's where Fr Joe's organization comes into play. This is a logical step for the HDC because they have so many services already set up through Mercy Center, and now they will have legal services too. Some time to the future, I would also like to expand it to represent women too."
The Legal Aid Clinic aims to prevent the charging and detention of street children accused of minor offenses. The goal is to gave the police the option of turning over kids to the HDC before registering them in the Police Day Book, charging them and detaining them in police custody.
Such a system requires the Legal Aid Clinic staff to develop and maintain good working relationships with Bangkok police stations. It also needs an effective hotline so the clinic can respond quickly if children are arrested. Many times payment of a small fine is required before the youngsters can be released.
The Legal Aid Clinic also aims to protect the rights of street children who are charged and detained and are waiting for their case to go to trial. HDC's legal aid team will intervene in a bid to protect their rights; lobbying for cases to be swiftly dealt with and where necessary posting bail for underprivileged children to keep their detention time to a minimum.
When the Clinic is set up, the HDC's legal aid team will represent both young offenders and victims. They will act as their guardians in court in a bid to ensure they get a fair trial and offer youngsters emotional support and guidance.
The HDC will also lobby on behalf of children they believe have been unjustly sentenced.
"Consequently, the Legal Aid Clinic will need an office close to Bangkok's Children Court, so the staff can respond immediately and efficiently to children needing legal representation," said Ms Hsia.
The Clinic will also offer counseling, rehabilitation, and training to young offenders and victims, she added.
Another of the Clinic's objectives is to rehabilitate youngsters so they can be reintegrated into society.
To accomplish this, the Legal Aid Clinic, will work with Mercy Center which can accommodate up to 100 children, and offers counseling and educational and vocational training.
Mercy Center is currently home to forty former street children and once the Legal Aid Center is up and running, it is expected it will be filled to capacity.
Although it is not equipped to work with adolescents over fifteen years, Mercy Center is part of the network which can help place the older teenagers in appropriate homes and provide counseling and training. It is estimated the Legal Aid Clinic for street children needs an annual budget of Bt1.6 million (approx CAN$1=Thai Bt25).
"Fr Joe's organization is intimately tied up with the community it works with. Because of that and the trust he inspires, people turn to him," Ms Hsia said. She said setting up the Legal Aid Clinic means "the kids will call
Fr Joe and so will the police.... The result will be better protection for street children's legal rights."
Info for donations:
- Name of project: Legal Aid Clinic
- Contact persons: Fr Joe Maier, Tim Hague or Tom Crowley
Human Development Center,
3757/15 Sukhumvit Road,
Soi 40, Phrakanong, Klong Toey,
Bangkok, Thailand 10110
- Tel: (662) 392-7981,
(662) 671-7025 - Khun Samran
- Fax: (662) 391-4968
Father Joe Maier
- Bank account name: Human Development Center
- Account number:
042-2-42893-1; Siam Commercial Bank's Thonglor Branch.
(Please identify as money for the "Legal Aid' project).