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Nearly 1,600 helped by Criminal Legal Aid Scheme last year

The Supreme Court building. In Parliament yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong outlined recent amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act that could help the poor get legal aid faster and more effectively. The changes inc
The Supreme Court building. In Parliament yesterday, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong outlined recent amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act that could help the poor get legal aid faster and more effectively. The changes include simplifying the means test that checks whether an applicant qualifies for aid.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG
Mr Edwin Tong
Mr Edwin Tong

Alex, 25, found himself facing a jail sentence of several months for lending his bank account to a criminal syndicate for money laundering activities.

But the court last year granted him probation instead of imprisonment - thanks to the work of lawyer Siraj Shaik Aziz.

Mr Siraj was assigned to represent Alex (not his real name) under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme as the accused could not afford a lawyer on his own.

The lawyer eventually convinced the court and prosecution to grant Alex probation instead of imprisonment - citing factors such as his good character, commitment to further education and his role as his mother's sole caretaker.

"I am very grateful and thankful to the lawyer assigned to me, who has given me a second chance in life," Alex wrote in a thank-you message he sent to the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.

Alex, whose case was narrated by the Ministry of Law in a statement to the media yesterday, was among the nearly 1,600 people who were given criminal legal aid under the scheme last year.

This was almost four times the number of cases from before 2015.

ENSURING ACCESS TO JUSTICE

We will continue to review these schemes to ensure that persons of limited means, the right target clientele of these schemes... will have access to justice.

MR EDWIN TONG, Senior Minister of State for Law and Health, on helping the needy get legal aid.

 
 

The numbers rose after the Government introduced direct funding in 2015 to cover operational costs of the scheme, said Senior Minister of State for Law and Health Edwin Tong in Parliament yesterday.

"We will continue to review these schemes to ensure that persons of limited means, the right target clientele of these schemes... will have access to justice," said Mr Tong.

He was responding to questions from Mr Christopher De Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah GRC) and Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) on the access of legal aid for the needy.

Mr Tong outlined recent amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act that could help the poor get legal aid faster and more effectively.

The changes include simplifying the means test that checks whether an applicant qualifies for aid, providing for greater flexibility to grant aid, and improvements in the administration of aid.

These changes will be implemented in the second half of this year, said Mr Tong.

But while legal aid is available to persons accused of criminal charges, it is generally not provided to those who are involved in arbitration proceedings, which are typically used in high-value commercial dispute resolutions, said Mr Tong.

Mr Chen Show Mao (Aljunied GRC) had called on the Government to consider offering legal aid to the needy who may be involved in arbitration proceedings.

He noted that there seems to be an increasing number of Singaporeans entering into mass-market consumer contracts, such as insurance policies, which may include an arbitration clause.

Should a dispute arise, needy consumers would be prevented from pressing a meritorious claim as they are not covered by legal aid for arbitration proceedings, said Mr Chen.

However, Mr Tong highlighted other avenues through which such needy persons may seek assistance.

Apart from getting free legal advice on their contract from the Legal Aid Bureau, they can get help under the Law Society's Pro Bono Arbitration Scheme.

"That said, if Mr Chen is able to provide us with a specific case that he has encountered... my ministry will review the case and see what we can do to assist on a case-by-case basis," said Mr Tong.

 

Correction note: This article has been updated to reflect the correct name of lawyer Siraj Shaik Aziz.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 05, 2019, with the headline 'Nearly 1,600 helped by Criminal Legal Aid Scheme last year'. Print Edition | Subscribe