Just $250 to seek deputy powers

Project slashes legal costs for parents of special needs children

Helping Madam Halela Mawardi (second from left) with the application forms for a deputyship order to manage the affairs of her teenage son Muhammad Muhyiddin (far left) when he turns 21 are law undergraduates Kerri Tan and Mehaerun Simaa.
Helping Madam Halela Mawardi (second from left) with the application forms for a deputyship order to manage the affairs of her teenage son Muhammad Muhyiddin (left) when he turns 21 are law undergraduates Kerri Tan and Mehaerun Simaa. ST PHOTO: YEO KAI WEN

The legal costs for parents seeking decision-making powers for their mentally disabled grown-up children have been slashed dramatically, from $5,000 to about $250.

This was after the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) started a pilot project to have volunteer undergraduate law students do some of the work previously handled by lawyers.

These volunteers help such parents fill in court forms and check them for completeness before they are submitted to the court, doing away with lawyers completely.

The initiative will help parents who had hesitated about seeking decision-making powers, as the process was seen to be costly and complex.

Take, for example, Madam Halela Mawardi. While she is able to make key legal, financial and major personal welfare decisions for her 18-year-old intellectually disabled son now, she has to be appointed his deputy when he turns 21 to continue making decisions for him.

"But we have been delaying this because we don't know how to go about it and it is expensive to hire a lawyer," said Madam Halela, 55, an operations support officer.

Her dilemma is one that all parents of children with severe mental incapacity go through. "One of my clients had a toothache and needed to be put under general anaesthesia but the dentist did not recognise the parent's signature because the child was 23 years old," said Mr Keh Eng Song, chief executive of the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore (Minds).

Besides making the application process more affordable, MSF is working with the Family Justice Courts to have standard formats for key documents such as medical reports and affidavits so that individuals can fill them up more easily without the help of a lawyer.

"It is expensive to get a medical report and I don't see why we have to produce this as our son already has severe intellectual disability since he was young," said Mr Tamilmaran Velu, 55, a security guard.

The pilot, which started in March, addresses this concern by reducing the need to submit additional medical reports.

The Mental Capacity Act of 2008 puts in place a legal framework for proxy decision-making where individuals may make a lasting power of attorney (LPA) appointing someone to make decisions on their behalf when they lose mental capacity.

If an individual lacks mental capacity, the courts may appoint a deputy to make decisions for him.

The high cost and extensive paperwork involved have long been cited as barriers to getting people to make such preparations early.

When MP Denise Phua suggested simplifying the application process in Parliament last month, MSF Minister Tan Chuan-Jin said his ministry aimed to introduce changes in the fourth quarter of this year.

However, he had a note of caution: "While we do more to simplify the application process, we will have to continue to safeguard the interests of the mentally incapacitated individual."

MSF slashed a 15-page LPA form to eight pages after it emerged that about one in five applications last year was rejected because of gaps or mistakes in the forms.

"It's easier now for the parents as the law students are there to guide them through the process and new simplified forms are being used," said Associate Professor Lim Lei Theng from National University of Singapore's Law Pro Bono Office.

For the pilot, Minds selected 10 students from its current graduating cohort, whose parents seek to be appointed as deputies for them as they have turned 18.

So far, two families - Madam Halela's and Mr Tamilmaran's - have filed their applications and they were successfully appointed as deputies two weeks ago. About 100 Minds graduates with severe intellectual disability are expected to benefit from this pilot each year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 10, 2015, with the headline Just $250 to seek deputy powers. Subscribe