NGO rolls out online centre to guide people who represent themselves in court

Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah (fourth from left) launching the Community Justice Centre's Self-Help eWeb at the Sentosa Golf Club on April 13, 2018.
Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah (fourth from left) launching the Community Justice Centre's Self-Help eWeb at the Sentosa Golf Club on April 13, 2018.ST PHOTO: JONATHAN CHOO

SINGAPORE - When Sheila was 33, her husband died from cancer, leaving her the sole breadwinner for her mother, sick grandmother and two children.

When her grandmother turned for the worse and died in 2016, Sheila (not her real name) struggled with the medical bills and funeral costs, and misappropriated funds in an attempt to pay off her debts.

Last year (2017), Sheila was charged in court, but did not have the money to hire a lawyer.

She was eventually represented by a lawyer under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, who helped reduce her jail term from five months to three.

But Sheila was worried about how her family would cope. This was where the Community Justice Centre (CJC) played a key role by providing assistance to tide her family over in that period.

Now 44 and released after a month for good behaviour, she has since found a full-time job as a cashier and is able to support her family.

"I was broken down but CJC gave me courage," she said, recounting how the staff supported and encouraged her.

Sheila is one of the thousands of people who have benefited from the non-governmental organisation, provides non-legal assistance like interim financial support and food vouchers, in collaboration with Comcare, Food Bank Singapore and the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore, and makes referrals to social service agencies for longer-term support.

CJC also dispenses basic legal advice on-site at the State and Supreme Courts through its On-Site Legal Advice Scheme.

On Friday (April 13), the NGO took its activities one step further, launching a new resource to help people who are representing themselves in court, or litigants-in-persons, in conjunction with its fifth anniversary dinner at the Sentosa Golf Club.

Self-Help eWeb (SHeW) features an automated court document assembler (ACDA), which guides users through key court procedures in areas such as bankruptcy, and helps generate the appropriate application form based on answers to a few basic questions.

Other modules currently available in the ACDA are deputyship and mitigation pleas. A segment for divorce proceedings will be available in June, and CJC plans to add more modules in the future.

SHeW also has a chatbot that gives basic legal information for certain matters.

In addition, the system uses business intelligence to try and analyse the trends of legal issues, which guides decisions on future programmes, said Mr Leonard Lee, CJC's executive director.

Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah said at Friday's launch: "SHeW is in line with the national push towards becoming a Smart Nation. By harnessing technology to improve your operational efficiency, you are delivering better services to litigants-in-person."

Since its inception in late 2012, CJC's outreach has grown rapidly, from fewer than 10,000 in its first year to 17,000 court users in 2017.

The NGO, which is run by a team of just 15 members, relies largely on some 600 to 700 volunteers, including lawyers, and looks for innovative ways to expedite and improve its services. SHeW is one such example.

"Due to budgetary constraints, we cannot hire a lot of people and while we have strong support from volunteers, we need to actively leverage technology for us to be effective, to strengthen our capacity and fulfil our mission," Mr Lee said.

More than $600,000 was raised by the NGO in conjunction with the dinner on Friday, including a charity golf tournament.