SINGAPORE - A landmark ruling will allow lawyers to take on clients with little or no means to pay their legal bills unless they win their case.
A Court of Three Judges has held that lawyers who do this will not be "wrong", in a drive to help more people get access to justice.
Champerty - when a lawyer agrees to help a client on the basis that he gets a share of the proceeds from a case if it is successful - is currently forbidden here.
There are public policy reasons for this - among other things, a lawyer who has a personal economic stake in the litigation and is not otherwise paid for his services faces "a potential and often acute conflict of interest".
However, the apex court for disciplining lawyers has now directed that such an arrangement for "impecunious" clients will not come within the professional conduct rules against champerty.
Indeed, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon - who made up the court with Judges of Appeal Chao Hick Tin and Andrew Phang - said it would even be the "honourable" thing for a lawyer to do.
In such a case, he said, the lawyer is putting aside his fee concerns with the aim of "ensuring the litigant is not denied the opportunity to seek justice".
But the court also made clear that it is for Parliament to decide on any changes to laws regarding champerty. The process is known as the contingency fee system in the United States. The court found support from case examples in England and Australia and said the lawyer had to be satisfied "in all honesty" that the "impecunious" client had a good case which would likely be litigated but for the lack of funds.