S’pore to introduce Public Defender’s Office to enhance access to justice for vulnerable individuals

The government will need to be careful about cases of possible abuse, Shanmugam said.

Jane Zhang | April 05, 2022, 02:31 PM

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The government plans to set up a Public Defender's Office (PDO) by the end of 2022, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam announced in Parliament on Monday (Apr. 4).

The objective of the PDO is to "enhance access to justice for vulnerable individuals in Singapore", he explained.

Upon passage of the bill, the PDO will be fully funded by the government and will be a department under the Ministry of Law.

Enhanced coverage to criminal legal aid system

Currently, the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) — which is co-funded by the government — provides legal aid to those accused of crimes who cannot afford legal assistance.

The PDO bill proposes to enhance coverage, both in terms of income cap and the types of offences covered.

Currently, CLAS covers up to the 25th percentile of resident households. According to the proposed bill, this threshold will be increased to the 35th percentile, raising the per capita household income cutoff from S$950 to S$1,500.

"This means more Singaporeans — needy Singaporeans — who require the services of a criminal defence lawyer will be covered," Shanmugam said.

In addition, the types of offences covered under the PDO will also be expanded.

The proposed criminal legal aid system will not cover regulatory offences such as traffic summons and departmental charges.

Offences under nine pieces of legislation primarily meant to deter specific behaviours will also not be covered, including gambling and betting, organised and syndicated crime, and terrorism offences.

"Offences under these Acts bring about significant negative externalities to society, and public funding, I think, will be difficult to justify being used towards defending such cases."

Goal to begin PDO operations by end of year

The proposed PDO will be headed by the Chief Public Defender and employ full-time lawyers who will take on cases as public defenders.

These employees will include fresh graduates and younger lawyers, mid-career hires, and legal service officers, explained Shanmugam.

The goal is to have the PDO begin operations "at least in some modest way" by the end of this year, Shanmugam said, and the office will scale up over time.

The public defenders will handle all PDO cases in the early years, and later on, some cases will be outsourced to a panel of qualified lawyers.

Shanmugam estimated that the total caseload for criminal legal aid could increase by another 50 per cent or more, above the 712 cases covered by CLAS in the 2020 financial year.

The government will also continue to provide some co-funding to CLAS, and the details will be assessed and discussed in light of the establishment of the PDO.

Details regarding which cases the PDO will handle and which ones CLAS will handle will also need to be worked out, Shanmugam stated. He added that PDO will only assist Singaporeans.

Will need to be careful of possible abuse since funded by taxpayers' money

Shanmugam shared how the government had studied the criminal legal aid models in 11 different jurisdictions, drawing lessons to try and minimise abuse of the system.

Two such categories are lawyers over-billing and "unmeritorious applicants" who take advantage of the legal aid support.

He stated that the government "will have to be careful about the cases the government funds using taxpayers' money". He added:

"In other jurisdictions, expansions and coverage contributed to higher costs, and we will have to be very careful to try and not strain the public purse.

We intend to put in place measures to try and ensure that aid is given only in deserving cases, and try and ensure that the costs of criminal legal aid remain sustainable."

Responding to a question from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh regarding the amount of funding and staffing the PDO will require, Shanmugam responded that the PDO will be primarily funded out of the Ministry of Law's budget.

As there are ongoing discussions with Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, Shanmugam said further details would be addressed, if necessary, when the bill stage is reached.

He assured Parliament that what the House can be certain about "is that at a steady state, with the kind of framework we are thinking of — a fairly robust means test, merits test — we will cover those who need assistance".

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Top photo via MCI.