Parliament: MP Sylvia Lim calls for greater access to justice for poor

Parliament: MP Sylvia Lim calls for greater access to justice for poor

The poor should have greater access to justice, especially regarding plea bargains and bail conditions, said Workers' Party Member of Parliament Sylvia Lim on Wednesday.

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Here is Ms Sylvia Lim's, MP for Aljunied GRC, speech in Parliament on the debate on President's Address:

Towards a safe, fair and just society

The government has always prioritized creating economic growth, and nobody seriously disputes that growth is one of the ingredients for social progress. However, the surge in the population since 2005 has had its repercussions on our quality of life. Singaporeans were waiting longer to board public transport with less comfortable rides, wasting more time and petrol stuck in traffic jams, and increasingly feeling like strangers in our own country.

As everyone fights for scarce resources, we must ensure that Singaporeans have the assurance that we live in a safe, fair and just society, and have access to essential services at a standard we can be proud of. To this end, I would like to highlight two areas we should pay attention to viz. Challenges for the Home Team, and Access to Justice. I will later argue for a culture of greater research and gathering and sharing of data in crime and justice matters.

Challenges for the Home Team

First I would like to talk about some challenges faced by the Home Team.

Let me at the onset acknowledge the tremendous pressure on the Home Team in recent years, as it tries to cope with the surge in population. With millions more residents and visitors to handle, there is an exponential increase in the number of encounters with Home Team officers, and with that, a higher risk of mistakes occurring, statistically. When mistakes happen, a measured reaction should be taken, to diagnose the cause and prevent its recurrence. Heads may need to roll, but scapegoating should be avoided.

The public too, should play a constructive role and not add to the problem. Why do I say that? About six years ago, a man managed to clear immigration at Changi Airport using his son's passport. This incident was widely reported and was the subject of much public criticism. Later, an ICA officer shared with me that in the aftermath of that incident, some Singaporeans clearing Woodlands checkpoint found it amusing to ridicule the ICA officers by asking them to re-check their passports in case they were travelling on their father's or mother's passports. The officers had to take such jibes in their stride while focusing on the sheer volume of people and vehicles to process.

The security manpower at our checkpoints is a complex eco-system of ICA, SPF, auxiliary police, Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), customs and Land Transport Authority, requiring attention to segmentation of tasks and supervision. Today, I understand that Singaporeans are facing slower clearances at Woodlands, as the security procedures for checking vehicles have been tightened since the various security breaches there this year. I note that a Ministerial-level Committee is reviewing and strengthening the security measures at the checkpoints. As we plug the gaps, it is also important not to add more red tape to slow down the clearance process.

I turn now to policing. Policing needs have evolved and undoubtedly increased; the MHA addendum mentions a new Divisional HQ in Woodlands and two new Neighbourhood Police Centres in Geylang and Bartley. During the Committee of Inquiry into the Little India riots, the Commissioner of Police expressed his view that he would need 1,000 more police officers. Can we ever find enough manpower? Since our local birth rate is low, will we be forced to turn to foreign manpower for policing? For instance, we have historically accepted Malaysians and Nepalese Gurkhas into the SPF. Will we be doing more of that?

The need to leverage on technology to reduce manpower is a must, and it is good to note that the SPF has clearly been doing this. For example, the nationwide PolCam project will install CCTV cameras at lift lobbies, staircases and multi-storey car parks of HDB blocks. PolCam is now substantially implemented, and has been very welcome by the public. However, there is no equivalent of PolCam in the private estates. Though I do not think the residents in private estates expect that, they do have their crime concerns.

When COPS was launched, one of the justifications was that it would enable the police to cater to an ageing and diverse population. To this end, one of the innovations I am not sure of is the revamp of the Neighbourhood Police Posts under COPS. The new NPPs, called e-NPPs or enhanced NPPs, offer electronic services, but are completely unmanned. I note that a pilot phase involving 3 NPPs began about six months ago. How did the elderly cope with the change to an unmanned NPP? I visited one of the revamped NPPs recently and noted online services at the e-kiosk in English. Are the services available in other languages? With the e-NPPs, was there any change to the police response times, compared to a physical presence at the NPP? I believe this needs to be assessed carefully to ensure there is no compromise in police response.

Access to Justice

Much as we would like to think that justice is blind, it is a fact across the world that the rich and the poor access the criminal justice system differently. While the rich have the resources to engage expensive lawyers and experts to support their cases, the poor have to make decisions based on their means. This sometimes includes pleading guilty, when they do not have the time or resources to contest their charges. This problem is not unique to Singapore.

Having legal representation when facing criminal charges is a necessity, as it is not easy for a layman to understand legal jargon and navigate his way through the various procedures. To this end, the Law Society stepped up to fill a void left by the government. The Society has been running its Criminal Legal Aid Scheme since the late 1980s to provide free legal representation to poorer accused facing non-capital charges. Despite the Law Society's most noble aims, the scheme had some limitations, as it covered only certain types of offences and only when the accused intended to claim trial. Thus, we have residents telling us they were turned away from CLAS because their offence was not covered (e.g. charges under the Immigration Act and Moneylenders Act) or because they wanted to plead guilty and only needed help in mitigation for a lighter sentence. To this end, it is heartening that the Ministry of Law has changed its stance. The MinLaw addendum specifically emphasizes its funding to the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) for direct assistance to poorer suspects. With greater and sustained government support, the aim should be to provide legal aid to all accused persons of limited means.

The Ministry of Law addendum also talks of an impending Criminal Procedure Review to develop a plea bargaining framework for early resolution of criminal cases. I do not know what the Ministry has in mind at this stage. Early resolution of cases is good for the court system and for public resources; it can also be good for the accused provided he is fully aware of the nature and consequences of his actions e.g. if he pleads guilty to reduced charges. However, there is a risk of persons taking certain courses of action out of ignorance or convenience, not realizing they have a valid defence, and not being aware of the effect of certain types of convictions on their future prospects. To this end, the plea bargaining framework should include ensuring that persons entering such bargains are legally represented even if they cannot afford their own lawyers.

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