Access to justice: Lawyers who help maids in cases through CLAS

Wan Ting Koh
·4-min read
Parties discussing legal proceedings
Parties discussing legal proceedings. (PHOTO: Getty Images)

SINGAPORE — Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Wednesday (4 November) spoke about the functions of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) in his Ministerial Statement on the high-profile case of Parti Liyani, a former maid who was accused and later acquitted of stealing from the household of prominent businessman Liew Mun Leong.

Parti was assigned a pro bono lawyer, Anil Balchandani, under CLAS for her case and was assisted by non-governmental organisation (NGO) Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) during the course of her legal proceedings.

Shanmugam said the Ministry of Law is currently studying the feasibility of setting up a Public Defender’s Office, under which the government can employ lawyers to defend persons who cannot afford lawyers for criminal cases.

Yahoo News Singapore spoke to the Law Society Pro Bono Services Office (LSPBS), which provides legal aid to eligible accused persons through CLAS after carrying out means and merits testing.

A spokesperson for LSPBS said that any member of public in Singapore, including domestic helpers, may apply for assistance under CLAS.

CLAS covers those in the bottom 25 per cent of household income level. The government pays for 75 per cent of CLAS’ operating costs, while the remaining 25 per cent, which goes towards defending foreigners who require legal aid, is covered by the Law Society and private donations. For Parti, it was estimated that if Balchandani’s full fees were charged, she would have had to pay $150,000.

Even if the offence does not fall under CLAS’ purview, legal representation may still be available under LSPBS’s Ad Hoc Pro Bono Assistance Scheme. Those seeking legal aid via this avenue are also required to undergo means and merit testing.

“We also collaborate with other agencies who serve migrant workers to address unmet legal needs – such as to spread awareness, conduct trainings for volunteers to understand legal terms, and coordinate or facilitate legal clinic sessions,” the LSPBS spokesperson said.

According to LSPBS, there were around 650 applications under CLAS from non-Singaporean and non-permanent resident persons in 2018 and 2019, and 300 of them were granted legal aid.

Yahoo News Singapore also spoke to an LSPBS board member and CLAS volunteer, Tan Cheow Hung, who has handled cases referred to him by NGOs such as HOME and TWC2. The director of Beacon Law Corporation has so far represented and assisted in five or six foreign domestic helpers involved in cases of theft, or accused of hurting their employers’ children. All were pro-bono cases.

Here are Tan’s answers via an email interview:

What are the challenges you face when representing domestic helpers?

Depending on where these foreign domestic helpers come from, there could be a language barrier when representing them. Some have been subject to considerable abuse and trauma whilst working for their employers. Most are terrified of a legal process completely alien to them.

How are these challenges overcome?

The NGOs play a huge and indispensable part in overcoming these challenges. Their case workers help arrange for volunteer interpreters and are also there to help the foreign domestic workers with their temporary accommodation and “hand-hold” them through the prosecution process. Some NGOs also work with lawyers and law schools to conduct workshops to explain the legal process to them.

How often do HOME and TWC2 refer to you for help in legal matters?

Only occasionally. NGOs like HOME and TWC2 have a good network of pro bono lawyers whom they can call upon for help (although more volunteers are welcome and needed) and I do believe they try their best not to over-tax the volunteers as they understand we need to strike a balance between pro bono and paid work, in order to be able to continue to volunteer.

What kind of legal matters are these?

Some involve foreign domestic workers charged with alleged offences, some involve foreign domestic workers who have suffered abuse at the hands of their employers and some involve foreign workers who have pay disputes with their employers or have suffered injuries whilst at work. Sometimes, we also get called upon to help conduct workshops and provide free consultation.

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