Access to legal help: Law being amended in boost for the poor

Moves to simplify criteria for legal aid, allow access to help for those who fail means test

It may soon be easier for the poor to get legal help. Proposed changes to the Legal Aid and Advice Act seek to simplify the criteria for legal aid, allow those who fail the means test to get access to help, and improve the administration of such aid.

These amendments, which the Ministry of Law announced yesterday, will help "strengthen access to justice", it said in a statement.

Right now, applicants qualify for legal aid under the Legal Aid Bureau if they meet certain requirements regarding their disposable income and capital.

The calculation takes into account several factors, including CPF contributions and a sum needed to maintain the living expenses of the applicant, spouse and dependants. But it excludes items such as the cost of clothes, furniture and up to $46,000 in surrender value of one or more life policies.

With the changes, the ministry plans to simply look at a household's per capita income, annual value of the applicant's home, savings and investments.

This is intended to simplify and shorten the application process for legal aid, as applicants would no longer need to provide proof of having met certain criteria.

The proposals also give the Law Minister the chance to grant aid to applicants who do not satisfy the means criteria, if the minister thinks it is just and proper to do so.

In all, six Bills were introduced at yesterday's Parliament sitting.

The new Civil Defence and Other Matters Bill, among other things, proposes giving Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF) officers explicit powers to respond to a wider range of incidents - not just for fire-fighting cases or a civil defence emergency such as an explosion, as is currently the case.

The proposals also give the Law Minister the chance to grant aid to applicants who do not satisfy the means criteria, if the minister thinks it is just and proper to do so.

It will also criminalise the unauthorised production and distribution of SCDF uniforms, as well as impersonation of an officer.

Meanwhile, the Serious Crimes and Counter-Terrorism (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill aims to strengthen the Government's ability to prosecute offences related to money laundering and terrorism financing.

For example, it could soon be an offence to possess or use property "reasonably suspected" of being criminal proceeds, which would help the authorities prosecute money mules who transport illicit funds for organised syndicates.

Also, the penalties for those who fail to flag suspicious transactions have been increased from a fine of $20,000, to $250,000 and three years' jail for individuals, and $500,000 for companies.

Those who tip off another person about an ongoing investigation may face a fine of $250,000 and three years jail, up from $30,000.

The changes would bring the penalties more in line with international punishments.

Changes have also been proposed to the Land Transport Authority of Singapore Bill to establish the $5 billion Rail Infrastructure Fund, announced at the Budget this year to develop future rail lines.

Also, the Goods and Services Tax (Amendment) Bill lays out how the tax would apply to overseas services such as video-streaming apps, while the Developers (Anti-Money Laundering and Terrorism Financing) Bill proposes laws to deter money laundering and terrorism-financing in ways that might apply to property developers.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 02, 2018, with the headline 'Access to legal help: Law being amended in boost for the poor'. Print Edition | Subscribe