Changes to the Legal Aid and Advice Act, passed yesterday, will make it easier for the most vulnerable to get legal help, but several MPs expressed concern that some would still fall through the cracks.
The Bill simplifies the criteria for legal aid. In line with other social support schemes, applicants will be assessed on household per capita income, annual value of their home, and savings and investments.
The proposals also give the Law Minister the chance to grant aid to applicants who do not satisfy the means criteria, if he thinks it is just and proper.
Mr Gan Thiam Poh (Ang Mo Kio GRC), one of eight MPs who spoke, was concerned that the use of household income would disadvantage applicants who support family members living elsewhere.
Said Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong: "The Government is not privy to the family dynamics in each situation. It's best at this stage to use the household income as the best proxy for family support." Doing so, he added, is also more convenient.
Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) and Ms Rahayu Mahzam (Jurong GRC) asked if more people could qualify for legal aid. The ministry has said the qualifying limit for the new means criteria, to be set later, will be such that there will be no material impact on the number of households eligible for legal aid, around the lowest 25 per cent of households here.
Mr Tong said his ministry regularly reviews the means test for civil legal aid. But, he added: "Legal aid is targeted and given only to those with limited means."
He also assured MPs that the Law Minister would have the flexibility to grant assistance to deserving applicants if it were "just and proper to do so" - a move he said would achieve greater equity overall.
This would be on a case-by-case basis, he said.