Faster, better access to legal aid for poor

The needy will soon get faster and greater access to legal aid under a new, simplified and more flexible system for assessing applicants.

The Legal Aid Bureau will use a revised means test procedure from next Wednesday to identify suitable applicants, while an independent panel will review deserving applicants who may not have satisfied the criteria, the Ministry of Law said in a statement yesterday.

This follows the amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act last year.

To qualify for legal aid with the bureau, which is run by the Law Ministry, applicants must first show via a means test that they cannot afford a lawyer and demonstrate that they have good reasons to bring or defend a case.

Under the modified means test, applicants will have to prove that their monthly per capita household income is $950 or lower for the 12 months before their application.

They will also have to prove that the annual value of their home is $13,000 or lower and that their savings and investments outside of the Central Provident Fund are $10,000 or lower.

This is in line with the means tests commonly used in social support schemes.


"With the change, applicants will no longer need to provide proof of certain categories of income, assets and expenditure. This will shorten the application process for legal aid," said the Law Ministry, adding that the changes will have no material impact on the number of households eligible for legal aid.

An independent panel has also been set up to review applicants who do not satisfy the means criteria but still cannot afford basic legal services.

Under the current system, the director of legal aid has no discretion to grant aid to applicants who fail the means test if their circumstances do not fall under four specific categories outlined in the Act, such as if an applicant is living apart from his spouse.

The new panel can review and grant aid to deserving applicants who fail the means test, provided they also pass the merits test.

The change will give the bureau greater flexibility to help deserving applicants, said the Law Ministry.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 11, 2019, with the headline 'Faster, better access to legal aid for poor'. Print Edition | Subscribe