More accused will get access to criminal legal aid

SINGAPORE - The Government is planning to expand criminal legal aid as part of a new approach to ensure that more people accused of non-capital offences have access to justice, Law Minister K. Shanmugam said last Friday.

A key change will be the increase in funding for the existing Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), said Mr Shanmugam, who was speaking at the Association of Muslim Lawyers Inaugural Lecture at the Supreme Court auditorium last Friday night.

The scheme, he added, will be expanded into a four-tier system, which provides help that ranges from information on the available channels, all the way to full legal representation in court for some.

He said the move represents a "clear shift in policy and philosophy" in regard to legal aid.

The Government's stance had been that providing criminal legal aid would result in the state using public funds to both prosecute and defend the same accused individuals. But this latest move is in keeping with other changes made towards becoming a more inclusive and compassionate society, said the minister.

These include substantial rises in child and infant care assistance, and plans for a third law school at SIM University to produce more community law specialists.

The changes announced yesterday also follow amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act that kicked in on July 1 and made it easier for parties in civil cases to pass a means test, which affects eligibility for aid administered by the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB).

The CLAS, run by the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office (PBSO), receives about 1,000 applications a year, of which up to 300 qualify for aid. Currently, only offences under 15 statutes, such as the Penal Code and Misuse of Drugs Act, are covered. With the increased funding, this list can be expanded.

Under the first tier of the enhanced scheme, those accused of crimes will be made aware of the channels available for advice, help and representation. The second will provide basic legal advice for people facing charges that may attract a jail sentence.

The third covers help not involving court attendance by a lawyer, such as preparing mitigation pleas or drafting defence cases. About 3,000 accused persons could be eligible for this tier yearly, and about 1,000 of them could receive full legal representation under the fourth tier.

A steering committee will be set up to oversee policies governing disbursement of the funds. It will be chaired by a High Court judge and comprise representatives from the courts, Law Society and Law Ministry.

The committee will oversee policies such as the type of offences that aid will be granted for and how to ensure funds are used only in "reasonably deserving cases".

"It will help us to ensure that we are not giving a blank cheque," said the minister, who added that a "clear framework" is needed to ensure that public funds are well spent and not abused.

The PBSO received $1.4 million in grants from 2007 to 2011. And in the financial year of 2012, $9.5 million was allocated to the LAB and other pro bono initiatives.

Criminal lawyers who do pro bono work regularly, like Mr Josephus Tan, welcomed the move announced by the minister.

"The enhanced scheme is a big step to ensure access to justice for the underprivileged," he said. "But both the means and merits testing must be very rigorous."

Lawyer S. Balamurugan agreed, saying: "If poor people have access to lawyers at the same level as paying clients, there may be consequences such as an explosion of trials. However, I think lawyers will be able to discern which cases can go to trial and which can't."

pohian@sph.com.sg


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