More people to qualify for free legal aid

MORE accused persons will very soon be able to apply for free legal representation - part of a raft of measures to ensure that the common man continues to have access to justice.

The enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), which will be rolled out on March 23, will include a revised means test which will allow more deserving persons to qualify for help. This was revealed by Law Minister K. Shanmugam yesterday in Parliament.

To raise awareness of the scheme, the Law Society will produce a "pamphlet of rights" which will be available at police posts and community clubs, he said.

The pamphlet, which will be ready by next month, will provide "guidance to any member of the public asked to assist in an investigation... and includes information on arrest, search and prosecution as well as legal aid", a Law Society spokesman told The Straits Times.

The enhanced Clas scheme will benefit up to 6,000 people every year, an increase from the current 400. Besides full legal representation, Clas will render basic legal advice and help in writing legal letters, including for mitigation pleas, Mr Shanmugam said.

Part of the funding will come from the Government, signifying a "significant" shift, he said.

Previously, the Government's stance had been that funding criminal legal aid would result in the state using public funds to both prosecute and defend the same accused individuals. Mr Shanmugam had said in 2013 that the shift is geared at becoming a more inclusive and compassionate society.

Yesterday, Mr Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said the right balance was needed when configuring the pro-bono ecosystem, so it would not affect the market for small law firms.

Mr Shanmugam replied that the changes should not affect these firms, but added that the Government would monitor the situation. MinLaw will also continue to refine the family justice system, he said.

Last year, the Family Justice Act was passed and the Family Justice Courts set up with the key aims of making the system more streamlined, cheaper, better able to look out for the interests of children, and of ensuring that the court process does not end up tearing families further apart.

As part of the current review, which will be completed by next year, the Government is studying family law-related legislation such as the claim an illegitimate child has to a share of the deceased parent's estate.

It will also look at strengthening the enforcement of maintenance orders. "This will help those who depend on maintenance payments to raise their children after divorce," said Mr Shanmugam.

Ms Ellen Lee (Sembawang GRC) said that for many family lawyers, the changes of the family law system were of a "seismic proportion". She said family lawyers, who were used to "being adversarial on behalf of their clients", now have to take on the role of conflict managers and problem solvers.

Mr Shanmugam said courses, talks and training sessions will be organised to get family lawyers up to speed.

He also spoke about the push to develop Singapore into an international hub for dispute resolution.

He said the setting up of the Singapore International Commercial Court and Singapore International Mediation Centre, for instance, will provide local lawyers and firms more work. He added that his ministry would continue to help local practices tap regional opportunities.

This article was first published on March 11, 2015.
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