Source: Channel NewsAsia
Singapore is adopting a new approach to criminal legal aid.
Minister for Law K Shanmugam announced that his ministry has decided to give direct assistance and support to defendants in criminal cases through criminal legal aid.
Details are being worked out.
Delivering the inaugural lecture of the Association of Muslim Lawyers on Friday evening, Mr Shanmugam explained that there are about 12,000 accused persons annually, of whom about 6,000 could benefit from some form of legal representation.
The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) sees about 1,000 applications per year, with about 200 to 300 qualifying to receive aid.
Mr Shanmugam noted that the types of offences for which they may be granted assistance under CLAS are also limited.
Therefore under the current study, there will be four tiers of assistance for the expanded legal aid.
The first tier will provide all accused persons with awareness of channels for legal advice and representation, as well as relevant social service agency assistance.
The next tier will provide basic legal advice for accused persons facing charges which may attract a custodial sentence.
The third tier includes help not involving court attendance by a lawyer, like writing letters of representation to the Attorney-General's Chambers, preparing mitigation pleas or drafting the defence case.
The Ministry of Law estimates that up to 3,000 could be eligible for limited assistance under this tier. Of the 3,000, the fourth tier of assistance is to help up to 1,000 accused persons with full representation.
Mr Shanmugam emphasised that the numbers are estimates which have been worked out with the Subordinates Courts.
He added that an independent Criminal Legal Assistance Steering Committee chaired by a High Court Judge will be set up.
It will oversee policies governing the disbursement of funds for the expanded Criminal Legal Aid Scheme and the types of offences where aid will be granted.
It will also examine the nature of the means test and merits scheme, to ensure funds are used only to defend reasonably deserving cases.
This will ensure that a blank cheque is not given, said Mr Shanmugam.
"Criminal legal aid, civil legal aid, all of these things are very good to have but it has to take place in the context of people making hard choices -- do I pay more in taxes, do I pay more in GST, do I spend less on healthcare in order to spend a bit more on these?" said Mr Shanmugam.
"That's the operating context but having thought through, I believe the step we are taking is the right one - to bring in criminal legal aid directly funded by the government. What it also means is that we have to set in place a clear framework to ensure the money is well spent, properly spent and not abused."
The minister emphasised that what is important is to develop a system that is fair, prudent and sustainable from the start.
He stressed that it is not right to say the State will support in all cases and that this is where the rules must be carefully worked out.