The Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations was founded by Lee Tai-young, who graduated from Ewha in 1936 and became the first woman in Korea to pass the judicial examination in 1952.
When the news came out that a woman had become a lawyer for the first time in 1954, dozens of women got in line in front of Lee’s house to ask for help. Seeing those people, Lee decided to establish a foundation to offer professional legal services.
“The main tasks we carry out are legal counseling services, educational programs and movements to revise the family law,” said Kwak Bae-hee (’69, Law), the current president of the center.
The organization mainly tries to help people who cannot protect their rights by themselves because they have little knowledge in law or are in financial difficulties.
“When the organization was established, there was no knowledge about legal services in society. We built the foundation of legal services in Korea,” said Kwak.
Kwak admits that it is not easy for a private organization to provide well-organized legal services in all across the civil law.
“We specifically cover women’s issues and family problems, and the largest number of cases we deal with involve divorce issues,” said Kwak.
According to statistics released by the organization, domestic disputes account for 50 to 60 percent of its cases. Those include adultery, criminal conversation and family debts.
Kwak says that the problems regarding family relations are not limited to divorce or domestic violence. So the organization offers programs to prevent possible family problems for old, remarried people and single parents.
Moreover, it has proceeded with movements to revise the family law since the 1950s and succeeded in nullifying most of the clauses that discriminated against women.
Kwak says that people need to spend a lot of money when insisting on their rights in court. So people who cannot afford to pay for legal services like hiring lawyers give up their rights. “To help those people, we offer legal aid for free,” said Kwak.
After spending eight years as the president of the organization, Kwak emphasized the need to widen legal services at the national level and to secure financial support to carry out the work effectively. Kwak says that aid from the government is needed to decrease the number of family problems and developing the legal aid system.
“Moreover, we need more help from those who practice law,” said Kwak.
The center has also been short of money on occasion. “To let lawyers in Korea know about the aim of our organization and ask for help, we sent written appeals to all lawyers across the country. As a result, we now have over 500 volunteers who help us routinely. They are called the One Hundred-Lawyer Community,” said Kwak. Furthermore, the organization has its own full-time lawyers to help its clients.
“About 130 to 140 people visit our office to get legal advice every day. We have established 31 domestic branch offices and 12 offices in the United States. Branch offices are built to provide legal services more conveniently. We also offer an online counseling program,” said Kwak.
To improve the quality of the services, the organization is also conducting research, releasing books, and offering lectures for people to raise their awareness about family issues like divorce.
“We have a library and research center to keep books and periodicals related to women, family and children's issues. We also publish monthly newsletters, articles, research reports, books and pamphlets to provide information on family law,” said Kwak.
Kwak says that there is still a long way to go to make an approachable legal aid system in Korea. Kwak says, “I will continue this work until there is no one in society who must plead for protection.”
CAPTION (Top) : Kwak Bae-hee poses at her office.
CAPTION (Bottom) : The building of the Korea Legal Aid Center for Family Relations located in Yeouido.