Criminal Legal Aid Scheme helping more accused people

Lawyers outside the State Courts.
Lawyers outside the State Courts. PHOTO: ST FILE

More than 2,400 assisted last year after Govt contributed funding

More accused people who cannot afford lawyers are receiving help after the Government stepped in to fund a legal aid programme.

This year, the Law Society hopes to expand coverage for more offences under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), which is run by the society's Pro Bono Services Office.

The latest statistics from the Ministry of Law show that 2,433 people were helped under the enhanced scheme last year - more than five times the people who received help in 2014.

Of these, 1,109 received basic legal advice while 1,324 were given legal help such as written mitigation pleas or full legal representation for those claiming trial. Before the official launch of the enhanced scheme in May last year, it offered only full representation in court.

Only 431 people were given help in 2014 and 427 in 2013.

In May last year, the Government pledged up to $3.5 million a year for the scheme, to help cover operational costs, token fees for volunteer lawyers and other disbursements.

In the past, the State steered clear of providing criminal legal aid as it would have meant using public funds to both prosecute and defend the same accused individuals.

The Ministry of Law said that almost one million Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) may meet the disposable income threshold for legal aid under the Legal Aid and Advice Act amended in 2013.

In Parliament last month, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said 25 per cent of Singaporeans and PRs now qualify for legal aid, up from 17 per cent previously.

A spokesman for the Law Society said it is also studying ways to expand Clas coverage to include more offences but did not give details.

He said: "More needy persons are being assisted now... As a result, the society has had to actively recruit more volunteers and has received written commitments from law firms to take on pro bono cases and support the Clas fellowship programme."

Under the programme, lawyers are hired by the Law Society or seconded by their law firms to undertake criminal legal aid work full time.

Managing director Abraham Vergis of Providence Law Asia said a "serious challenge" is getting enough lawyers and firms to volunteer their services for the growing number of people who qualify for Clas.

"The token honorarium that is now being offered to lawyers will hopefully enable more lawyers to take on a greater number of cases, but this alone may not be enough," Mr Vergis said.

"If Clas is to reach its target of aiding 6,000 accused persons annually in the next five years, it will need to considerably expand its volunteer corps of lawyers and to reach beyond small and mid-sized law firms."

But more lawyers are also putting in more hours to do more pro bono work, noted the Law Society spokesman.

For example, lawyers put in more than 68,000 hours of pro bono work from April 2014 to March last year, up from 45,000 hours from April 2011 to March 2012.

When it comes to civil rather than criminal matters, however, fewer people are getting legal help. Last year, 7,859 people received legal advice, help in drafting legal documents or legal representation in court, down from 8,741 in 2014 and 9,120 in 2013.

Veteran lawyer Amolat Singh believes this is because civil cases, which are handled by the Legal Aid Bureau under the Ministry of Law, are "pretty stabilised".

He said: "By contrast, the criminal legal aid has only recently been expanded. So many more accused persons who might have pleaded guilty previously try their luck at Clas in the hope that they would either be able to get a free hired gun to fight the case... or to mitigate."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 29, 2016, with the headline 'Criminal Legal Aid Scheme helping more accused people'. Print Edition | Subscribe