SINGAPORE - Volunteer legal help for criminal cases soared by a record 300 per cent last year over 2014 as a result of the game-changing Enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas).
The Clas, which received a massive boost last May, helped some 1,300 poor people accused of crimes, Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said in his annual report card at the Opening of the Legal Year event on Monday (Jan 11) morning.
"This is much more than a good start," he added.
The Enhanced Clas is a pro bono scheme supported by government funding based on the caseload undertaken. Among other things, the Clas has a team of young lawyers known as Clas Fellows hired by the Law Society to do pro bono cases with Singapore's five biggest law firms paying for their keep or seconding their associates to the Law Society for a year under the scheme, said Senior Counsel Thio.
This year some smaller firms have joined hands to support a sixth Clas Fellow under the scheme.
Before the Clas scheme was enhanced last year, there were some 265 lawyers handling about 400 pro bono cases a year.
SC Thio further listed several other initiatives pledged by various different-sized firms to undertake pro bono cases under the Clas scheme, as well as islandwide legal clinics run by the Law Society and law awareness talks given by volunteer lawyers.
"The statistics suggest that we made an impact," he added, noting that between one-half and one-third of Singapore's nearly 5,000 lawyers are estimated to be involved in pro bono work in some way.
Separately, on the issue of access to lawyers for those arrested, SC Thio urged the relevant agencies to ensure that accused people get access to counsel "sooner rather than later".
A pilot project is due this year when police interviews will be video-taped.
He pointed to the Law Society's Criminal Practice Committee recommendation that a suspect be allowed to consult a lawyer privately for up to one hour before statements are recorded by the police.
"Justice and fairness are served because it is that lawyer's job to advise the suspect to tell the truth... and to advise if no defence is available."
In relation to the legal profession, the society is in talks with the Law Ministry to find ways to help small and medium-sized firms. A detailed six-month study will first be undertaken to determine the problems they face and the business models used.
In addition, the Law Society is seeking more flexible powers to deal with appropriate disciplinary cases to empower its council to compel an errant lawyer to undergo counselling or attend some specified training. This will be an additional sanction for the Council to use in addition to its existing options.