S'pore enhancing legal aid, may introduce a Public Defender's Office: Edwin Tong

Those in need of legal aid will be able to get it more easily.

Nigel Chua | March 02, 2021, 05:54 PM

A study on enhancing Singapore's criminal legal aid model is expected to conclude this year.

Possible improvements include changes to the means criteria for legal aid, wider coverage in terms of offences, and setting up a Public Defender's Office, said Edwin Tong, Second Minister in the Ministry of Law.

Tong was speaking during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) on Tuesday (Mar. 2).

The study includes looking at the experiences of other countries, Tong said, as this would help Singapore to avoid the problems that other countries have encountered, such as abuse of legal aid by wealthy defendants, and its corresponding impact on the legal fraternity.

Need to proactively review how to get enhanced access to justice for accused

Currently, the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), co-funded by the government at the cost of S$2 million per year, provides legal aid to those accused of crimes who cannot afford legal assistance, said Tong.

He added that CLAS is available to those accused of crimes under 17 acts, which accounts for about 70 per cent of the non-capital criminal charges filed in the State Courts. The enhanced scheme receives on average 2,400 applications annually, all of whom receive "some" basic legal advice.

There is, however, a need to "continually, and proactively review how we get enhanced access to justice for accused persons of limited means," Tong said.

New means testing criteria, to simplify process

One improvement to CLAS, expected this year, is to introduce a new means testing criteria.

With the new criteria, CLAS will be more aligned with the criteria used in assessing eligibility for social support schemes, including per capital household annual value, as well as the applicant's savings and non-CPF investments.

This means testing criteria is already in place for those who apply for civil legal aid, since October 2019. The changes are expected to simplify the application process, and also reduce the paperwork for applicants.

Other moves to ensure that those who are less digitally-savvy can get legal assistance are also expected, including:

  • A new online application process, with "detailed step-by-step guidance" on online applications for criminal legal aid.
  • A streamlined protocol for courts to refer needy applicants to the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS) office directly, with no need for them to apply online.

Tong said, elaborating on studying the option of a public defender's office, "As I mentioned the experience of other countries, we have nonetheless continued to push on with enhancements to ensure that the justice system remains accessible, and this will remain a key cornerstone of our legal system."

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