When charged with a criminal offence or slapped with a civil lawsuit, some do not know whom to turn to, while others realise there is help only late in the process.
This is despite publicity surrounding pro bono services for criminal and non-criminal matters, and free advice regularly offered at legal clinics. For example, the Migrant Workers' Centre holds such a clinic every first and third Saturday of the month.
The issue of access to legal help was highlighted this month in the case involving Indonesian Parti Liyani. Accused of theft in 2016 by her employers and convicted for the crime, the former maid was cleared of all charges earlier this month after her pro bono lawyer Anil Balchandani fought for her acquittal.
Her employers of eight years were Changi Airport Group's former chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family.
It was a non-governmental organisation (NGO) - the Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (Home) - that helped her secure a lawyer.
The case prompted a number of parliamentarians to file questions on the issue, with the Workers' Party saying it has filed a motion to speak on equity in the criminal justice system.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said he will make a ministerial statement on the issues raised in Ms Parti's case.
NGOs and lawyers said that access to justice for people with lesser means can be hampered by a lack of knowledge of legal aid schemes.
They may also fail to meet the requirements for schemes such as those provided by the Legal Aid Bureau, where an applicant's average per capita gross monthly household income must be $950 or less for the 12 months prior to the application, among other things.
The bureau's aid is only for Singaporeans and permanent residents who pass the means and merits test, or for matters concerning international child abduction.
In Ms Parti's case, her legal battle was fought with the help of the Law Society Pro Bono Services' (LSPBS) Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
If Mr Anil had not taken the case pro bono, it would have cost her $150,000.
Some of the legal aid available to the public
LAW SOCIETY PRO BONO SERVICE'S CRIMINAL LEGAL AID SCHEME (Clas)
This scheme provides criminal legal assistance to people who face charges in a Singapore court for specified offences where punishments do not include the death penalty. The scheme covers offences including those under the Penal Code, Misuse of Drugs Act, Women's Charter, and Prevention of Corruption Act, among others.
MINISTRY OF LAW'S LEGAL AID BUREAU
The bureau deals with civil cases, and grants aid to needy Singaporeans or permanent residents who have passed their means and merits test.
An independent panel will review applicants who do not satisfy the means criteria but still cannot afford basic legal services.
LEGAL AID SCHEME FOR CAPITAL OFFENCES
This scheme helps all who are charged with capital offences such as murder and kidnapping, regardless of nationality.
Free legal counsel is assigned to people facing capital charges, and there is no eligibility criteria for this scheme.
Some of the organisations that run legal clinics include:
• Singapore Management University's Pro Bono Centre
• Migrant Workers' Centre
• Community Justice Centre
More than 1,000 lawyers are registered with the scheme, which provides criminal legal aid to the poor and needy. Aid was granted to over half of all applications to the scheme in the last two years, an LSPBS spokesman told The Sunday Times.
"This was the same for Singaporeans and permanent residents and foreigners, including migrant workers. Applications are assessed on the same rigorous means and merits tests," said the spokesman, adding that about 200 lawyers with the scheme are currently active.
NGOs like Home and Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) also have their own network of lawyers whom they tap for legal help.
The two organisations are among several groups that organise legal clinics for people to seek advice.
Home said that when foreign workers are in trouble with the law, they are seldom offered information by the prosecuting and investigating authorities about their legal rights and the resources available to them.
A spokesman for TWC2 said a few such workers who approach NGOs like TWC2 can be referred to a pro bono lawyer when it is timely and appropriate. "The unfortunate rest of them have to go at it alone and personally defend themselves in court," added the spokesman.
When people fail to meet the criteria in legal aid schemes, it can be difficult to obtain legal representation on a pro bono or even "low bono" basis, said criminal lawyer Suang Wijaya, who has worked on several pro bono cases. He is with the Eugene Thuraisingam law firm.
"They can conduct their own criminal case as an 'accused in person', but the technicalities of the laws of procedure and evidence make this task extremely difficult. For such persons, it can be almost impossible to obtain access to justice," he said.
There is some limited help for foreign workers in civil lawsuit matters, with non-governmental group Justice Without Borders specialising in helping foreign workers with cross-border lawsuits.
The outfit, whose Singapore office was set up five years ago, has reviewed more than 250 cases for potential claims involving domestic workers who have since returned home.
These include cases involving the illegal deployment of maids, allegations of sexual assault or abuse, and illegal overcharging by employment agencies, said Ms Tan Jun Yin, who heads the group's Singapore office.
TWC2's spokesman suggested expanding the Ministry of Law's Legal Aid Bureau scheme to help migrant workers.
Others suggested that the vulnerable can be made aware of the legal help available to them at the earliest possible instance, such as when police investigations are ongoing.
Association of Criminal Lawyers Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan said that beyond legal aid, "access to justice also means knowledge of rights".
"Take for example a criminal lawyer who gets arrested by the police, versus a foreign domestic worker who is arrested. One is armed with greater knowledge of the legal procedures... and the other doesn't have a clue," he said.
When people know their rights and legal procedures, they would be better able to make decisions on what information they should provide to the authorities, he said.
"As a society, we want the truth to be discovered in the investigation stage in a thorough manner."
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.