Govt may boost funds for legal aid

SINGAPORE - More needy people could benefit from free legal assistance as the Government considers increasing funds for pro bono criminal work.

But care will be taken to ensure that help continues to go only to the deserving, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah told Parliament on Tuesday.

She was responding to Mountbatten MP Lim Biow Chuan, who had asked if more money could be provided for criminal legal aid to encourage lawyers to take up work in this area.

Increased funding will allow the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office to take on more deserving non-capital cases.

Under its Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, lawyers are assigned to those who have been charged with offences that do not attract the death penalty.

Applicants for legal aid are assessed based on various criteria, including income. To qualify, single applicants must earn less than $1,300 a month, and married applicants must have a household income of less than $1,700 a month.

The office, which received $1.4 million in grants from 2007 to 2011, gets about 1,000 applications a year but can only take on some 300 cases.

Despite the possible increase in grants, Ms Indranee stressed that the Government wants to ensure funding remains sustainable as "monies come from a finite pool of taxpayer money".

"There cannot be an approach of unlimited funding nor funding for unmeritorious cases," said Ms Indranee, who was a top lawyer in Drew and Napier before she joined the frontbench last year.

" We have to structure some acceptable way of identifying cases where assistance needs to be given."

An independent committee will be set up to oversee the disbursement and allocation of the money.

She added that the experiences of other countries, some of which have found "costs prohibitive and (the) outcome not entirely satisfactory", are instructive.

Britain, for instance, spent £2 billion (S$4 billion) on legal aid annually - half of which went towards criminal defence - only to find out that some of the money went towards helping wealthy criminals whose assets were frozen.

The British government was eventually forced to cut back on funding.

Tuesday's announcement came amid efforts by the legal fraternity to encourage pro bono work as a way of widening public access to justice.

Law Society president Lok Vi Ming told The Straits Times that more funding will allow them to increase the scope of pro bono criminal work.

Currently, only offences that fall under 15 statutes, such as the Penal Code and Misuse of Drugs Act, are covered. With increased funding, this list could be expanded.

Details of the enhanced funding are being worked out with groups like the Law Society and the Singapore Academy of Law.

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