SINGAPORE - It will be easier for the most vulnerable to get legal help, through changes to the Legal Aid and Advice Act passed on Monday (Nov 19).
But during Monday's Parliament sitting, several MPs expressed concern that some individuals would still fall through the cracks.
The changes, in a nutshell, simplify the criteria for legal aid and allow those who fail the means test to get access to help.
In line with criteria for other social support schemes, applicants will be assessed based on their household's per capita income, the annual value of their home, as well as their 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.
But Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), one of eight MPs who spoke on the Bill, was concerned that the use of household income would disadvantage applicants who support family members living elsewhere.
Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong replied that such arrangements would not be considered as "family relationships can be complex and diverse".
"The government is not privy to the family dynamics in each situation, and so it's best at this stage to use the household income as the best proxy for family support," he said.
Doing so, he added, is also more convenient as applicants do not have to provide information on family members and the extent of their relationships.
Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) also asked if more people could qualify for legal aid.
The ministry has said the qualifying limit for the new means criteria, to be set later, will be such that there will be no material impact on the number of households eligible for legal aid, which is around the lowest 25 per cent of households here.
Mr Tong said his ministry regularly reviews the means test for civil legal aid to ensure it remains affordable. But, he added: "Legal aid is targeted and given only to those with limited means as it has to be, because we have limited resources and we need to be prudent about how we allocate them."
He also assured MPs that the Law Minister would have the flexibility to grant deserving applicants if it were "just and proper to do so" - a move he said would achieve greater equity overall. This would be on a case-by-case basis, he said.
Some MPs, like Mr Gan, asked what applicants could do if their requests for help were rejected. Mr Tong said those who have extenuating circumstances can raise them to the Law Minister, but the procedural steps for such an "appeal" are still being worked out.
Mr Henry Kwek (Nee Soon GRC) also asked if permanent residents would be subject to a more stringent set of criteria.
Mr Tong said the criteria would be the same, but PRs would "generally be charged a higher contribution towards the costs incurred for their cases".