Criminal legal aid scheme to complement Public Defender's Office, continue to serve foreigners

The Public Defender's Office is scheduled to be set up by the end of the year. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - A scheme that currently provides defence lawyers to low-income accused persons for free will function alongside the Law Ministry's Public Defender's Office (PDO) and continue to receive government funding.

The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), run by the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS), will also continue to serve foreign workers.

The PDO, scheduled to be set up by the end of the year, will provide low-income Singaporeans and permanent residents who face criminal charges a full-time public defender.

LSPBS chairman, Senior Counsel Gregory Vijayendran, told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview on Wednesday (Aug 24) that the PDO will need time to build capacity and Clas sees itself as in a complementary partnership with the PDO, with the goal to provide legal representation to more people who need it.

"There will be time for any new entrants, including the PDO, to build its capability... So until then, we are still very much going to continue to do what we've been called to do, what so many lawyers have been doing without a single cent," said Mr Vijayendran, adding that Clas will continue to receive funding from the Government.

"We look forward to continuing to stay true and stay strong in the role that we have been entrusted."

Clas helped 1,404 people between April last year and March this year. Of these, 729 people were assigned a lawyer to represent them in court.

Earlier this month, Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Law Rahayu Mahzam said the income criterion for the PDO will be a monthly per capita household income of up to $1,500, or around the 35th percentile of resident households by income.

This is an increase from the coverage of around the 25th percentile of households under the existing Clas, which is the equivalent of people whose monthly per capita household income is less than $950.

Mr Vijayendran said: "As far as we are concerned, it doesn't detract from the work that we're doing, certainly for the migrant workers and the foreigners. It's business as usual."

One of the most significant cases handled by a Clas lawyer involved former maid Parti Liyani, who was acquitted in 2020 of theft from then Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong and his family.

Her pro bono lawyer, Mr Anil Balchandani, told ST on Friday: "The way we treat minorities and the underprivileged in our society is a reflection of ourselves. PDO is nascent and with time, we hope the PDO will adopt best practices and afford access to justice to all those who are unable to afford it, citizens or otherwise."

He noted that the foreign worker population is about one million, close to 20 per cent of the population, adding: "Their ability to have access to justice benefits the institution of justice and the country in the long run. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, lack of access to justice is a threat to justice."

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