The Government has expanded criminal legal aid here and is committed to promoting access to justice, Senior Minister of State (Law) Indranee Rajah said yesterday.
She told Workers' Party Non-Constituency MP Dennis Tan that the Law Ministry broadened the means test for legal aid in 2013, and 25 per cent of Singaporeans and permanent residents now qualify for legal aid - up from 17 per cent before.
This means about 300,000 more people are potentially covered under the Legal Aid and Advice Act.
She was replying to Mr Tan, who wanted a review of the limits as the annual disposable income eligibility cap of $10,000 was "too restrictive".
But Ms Indranee said the $10,000 cap was arrived at after taking into account deductibles, which were expanded in 2013: "Sometimes, the perception is that that parameter of the $10,000 is too strict. But, in fact, what we have done over the last couple of years is to expand the coverage even though the amount of $10,000 has not itself increased."
Someone who makes $30,000 a year but has a net disposable income of $9,000 would thus qualify for legal aid, she added.
Under the Enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), the Government commits up to $3.5 million yearly to cover operational costs, disbursements and below-market rate fees to volunteer lawyers, she added.
The additional funding helped Clas lawyers provide legal aid to 1,300 people last year, compared to 431 people in 2014. "In effect, by providing the increased funding, my ministry is supporting criminal legal aid," she said.
Mr Tan, a lawyer, also wanted accused persons to be able to consult a lawyer privately, for up to one hour, before their police statements were taken. He said suspects should have early access to legal counsel, instead of possibly being detained for days or weeks without the chance to speak to one.
But Ms Indranee said the courts determined that access to legal counsel should be available within a reasonable time, and not immediately after arrest: "It has been explained in this Parliament before that we need to strike a balance between the rights of the accused person to consult his legal counsel, and the public interest in ensuring that the police are able to effectively investigate each case."
Allowing a suspect to communicate with third parties before police conclude their work can compromise investigations, she said.