Singapore mulling setting up Public Defender's Office: Shanmugam

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Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam will deliver a Ministerial Statement on the Parti Liyani case on 4 November 2020. (SCREENSHOT: Facebook)
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam delivered a Ministerial Statement on the Parti Liyani case on 4 November 2020. (SCREENSHOT: Facebook)

SINGAPORE — The Ministry of Law is studying the details and feasibility of setting up a Public Defender’s Office, under which the government employs lawyers to defend financially troubled persons facing criminal cases based on suitable means and merits testing.

Speaking during a ministerial statement on the high profile acquittal of former domestic helper Parti Liyani, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said the primary consideration of the office would be “to ensure that those who can’t afford lawyers can get access to justice without the situation becoming fiscally difficult for the taxpayer”.

Currently, the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) provides legal aid to accused persons facing non-capital offences, after carrying out means and merits testing. It covers those in the bottom 25 per cent of household income.

The government pays 75 per cent of CLAS’ operating costs. Where the accused person is a Singaporean, the money can be used to pay honoraria, or a payment for professional services provided nominally without official charge, to his or her lawyer.

The remaining 25 per cent comes through the Law Society and private donations.

As an honorarium paid to CLAS lawyers is nominal, their work is effectively pro bono.

In his speech, Shanmugam took MPs briefly through Public Defender Schemes in the UK and Hong Kong, showing how the schemes can be hard to manage and can get costly. For example, Hong Kong spent a total of S$217 million on both civil and criminal legal aid in 2017. Meanwhile, the scheme has been abused by some wealthy defendants in the UK, as their assets were frozen.

“How can we better help those who can't pay for lawyers? And yet, make sure that we don't go down the road that other countries have travelled?” he asked.

Shanmugam said the Law Society is in principle supportive of extending criminal legal aid to enhance access to justice. However, it has expressed strong concerns on the impact on paid work, especially on small firms.

There are about 750 lawyers practicing criminal law and many depend heavily on smaller value legal work or criminal cases, he noted.

Meanwhile, criminal lawyers have counter-proposed to expand the coverage of offences eligible for CLAS aid rather than increase the means testing coverage.

Shanmugam said discussions will continue before a decision is made.

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