Public still ignorant of rights under civil laws

BANGI: When his landlord increased his house rental by RM300 to RM1,700 a month, Ahmad Kamil (not his real name) was none too happy as he felt the hike was unwarranted.

In protest, Ahmad, 36, refused to pay the rent for a few months. Incensed, his landlord cut off his tenant's power supply and got his property agent to enter the premises without Ahmad's knowledge.

The agent then dumped Ahmad's belongings outside the house, damaging some of his possessions in the process. The main door lock was also changed to prevent Ahmad from entering the house.

The landlord thought his actions were permissible as he was the legal owner of the house, but what he did not know was that under specific civil laws, tenants have rights too as do all individuals who enter into any agreement or contract.

According to civil lawyer Hizri Hasshan, ignorance of the law made people more vulnerable to victimisation and injustice.

Citing Ahmad's case as one of the many he had handled with regard to tenants who were unaware that they too had rights under the Specific Relief Act 1950, he said the general perception was that the house owner has the "green light" to change the door locks in order to forcefully evict his tenant.

"It's a wrongful act under the law. If the aggrieved party refers the matter to a lawyer, action can be taken against the landlord," said Hizri, who runs a law firm with his partners.

Unaware of their rights

People getting the short end of the stick are not only tenants who are unaware of their rights as enshrined in the law, but also housebuyers who hit a snag when buying an auctioned house or a unit in a housing project that is eventually abandoned.

"House buyers must know that they have legal rights too, otherwise they will be exploited. For instance, if they've booked a house in a project that is later abandoned by the developer, they should immediately seek a lawyer's help to terminate the (sale and purchase) agreement to stop the bank from releasing their housing loan to the developer.

"This must be done before the company folds up because once it is declared insolvent, no one can take any legal action against it as its affairs will come under the management of the Department of Insolvency," he told Bernama.

Referring to tenants who are victimised by their high-handed landlords, Hizri said many tenants did not know that the Specific Relief Act's provisions overrode the terms of the tenancy agreements that they had signed with their landlords.

"If the (tenancy) agreement states that the landlord can change the lock of the house, it's considered invalid as it contravenes the Specific Relief Act," he pointed out.

This Act requires the houseowner to issue a notice of termination of lease, as well as obtain a court order, to secure vacant possession of his premises.

Wrong to opt for self-help remedy

If a tenant defaulted on his rent payments and refused to vacate the premises, the houseowner can institute legal action against the tenant under Section 28(4) of the Civil Law Act 1956, explained Hizri.

"Both the landlord and tenant have their own rights under the law. Not knowing this, some landlords tend to resort to the self-help remedy which is not recognised by the laws of this country. A person has to get a court order in order to enter a house, even if it is his own."

He said in the event the owner trespassed the property he had rented out, the tenant can either consult a lawyer to take civil action against him to claim compensation or lodge a police report.

The lawyer also said that besides tenants and landlords, many other members of the public were unaware that some of their actions can land them on the wrong side of the law.

"This is especially true when it comes to house renovations. Many people don't know that legal action can be taken against them if any of their neighbours complain that they were adversely impacted by the renovations or they (renovations) were done without the approval of the local authority," he said.

He advised the public to consult a lawyer before entering into any agreement or contract relating to housing, land, financial or other deals so that they would be aware of the implications involved.

Legal aid

However many people, particularly those in the lower-income category, usually end up not seeking legal advice as they cannot afford the steep fees charged by lawyers. It is understood that some lawyers, especially those from well-known firms, charge their clients as much as RM800 an hour for consultation.

Fortunately, Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia runs a Litigation and Legal Aid Centre (PUBLIG), which offers free consultations to those in need of legal advice in civil, criminal and syariah matters.

Set up in 2011 by the university's Faculty of Law, the centre (previously known as the Legal Aid Clinic) has succeeded in roping in the services of 40 lawyers, including Hizri, with expertise in various fields.

Associate Prof Dr Shahrul Mizan Ismail, who heads PUBLIG, said besides offering legal advice, the centre also helped the public to get lawyers to represent them in court.

"We also expose them to legal literacy programmes and matters relating to consumer rights," he said, adding that the corporate social responsibility initiative by UKM was aimed at helping the underprivileged to safeguard their rights.

Most of the civil cases handled by the centre relate to land disputes, inheritance issues and bankruptcy, as well as disputes over sale and purchase agreements, tenancy agreements and loan agreements. As for criminal cases, it steps in to help the accused to get a lawyer to defend him in court if he/she cannot afford one.

Shahrul Mizan said the centre also offered legal advice and legal literacy programmes via social media platforms like Facebook and YouTube.

"Via Facebook Live, we provide briefings on legal literacy. The public can ask us any question they want and our lawyers will provide the answers," he said.

Those who wish to seek the help of PUBLIG can go to their office located at Third Floor, Wisma Unikeb, Bangi. It is open from Monday to Thursday, 9am to 4pm. Its legal literacy programme is conducted every Friday.

The centre can be contacted at 03-89214919 or email — Bernama