The Government may increase funding for legal aid in non-capital criminal cases, by giving more money to groups that run pro bono legal aid programmes.
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Here is the transcript of the question and answer session at Parliament:
Lim Biow Chuan, Member of Parliament:
Thank you Madam Speaker, I want to say that I support the Ministry's point on the importance of ensuring that trainee lawyers are exposed to domestic areas of legal practice, especially in areas like criminal law, family law and litigation. I also want to commend the Government's efforts to set up the third law school at UniSIM to address the domestic legal needs, because really it is not easy to find, to be able to attract young lawyers to these areas of practice. May I ask the Minister if the Government can consider providing more funding, say for criminal legal aid, so as to encourage lawyers to take up work in this area, so as to better serve the domestic needs of the community.
Indranee Rajah, Minister of State for Law:
Madam Speaker, I thank Mr Lim Biow Chuan for his support. The Member's query on criminal legal aid was also raised earlier this year by Mr Hri Kumar at the Committee of Supply Debates. At that time, I had replied to Mr Kumar to say that we would consider the position. And I believed that I had also mentioned this when we were discussing the amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act. And I said at that time, that we were considering how to expand our funding to the Law Society's Criminal Aid Scheme to enable them to support more cases that are deserving. Members will know that for capital cases, legal assistance is already funded by the State. And we have been reviewing the position for non-capital cases for some time.
We have decided that the Government should do more in the provision of criminal legal aid, compared with the position hitherto.
Details are still being worked out with stakeholders such as the Singapore Academy of Law and the Law Society. While we make this move, we also need to be careful about how we do this as the monies come from a finite pool of taxpayer money.
The experience of other countries is salutary. Countries have found the cost to be prohibitive and the outcomes not entirely satisfactory. So for example, in the UK, the government spends some £2 billion on legal aid every year, with criminal defence making up for more than half of the bill. There have been scandals involving wealthy criminals who received legal aid from the state because their assets were frozen. And the UK has now been forced to cut back on criminal legal aid funding.
We want to learn from the experience of these other countries, and to develop a system that is sustainable. And so, there cannot be an approach of unlimited funding nor funding for unmeritorious cases - we have to structure some acceptable way of identifying cases where assistance needs to be given.
We will announce more details once the plans are ready.