Parliament: Criminal legal aid cases jumped 4-fold last year compared to 2015

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 Edwin Tong.
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 Edwin Tong.ST PHOTO: KELVIN CHNG

SINGAPORE - 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 (Clas), as he 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 they (Clas) assigned to me, who has given me a second chance in life," said Alex, in a thank-you message he sent to Clas.

Alex, whose case was narrated by the Ministry of Law in a statement to the media on Monday (March 4), 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.

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 Edwin Tong in Parliament on Monday during his ministry's debate on the Budget.

"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, who is also Senior Minister of State for Health.

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

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

Changes include simplifying the means test to check if 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.

 
 

However, while legal aid is available to people 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 seemed 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 Mao.

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, such needy persons 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.

"On top of that, we will also continue to monitor developments in this area with Ministry of Trade and Industry - since it concerns consumer protection - and consider whether further steps need to be taken."

 

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