Monday, July 4, 2022

New Public Defenders Office will provide legal aid to those with per capita household income up to S$1,500: MinLaw

Bill introduced to set up Public Defender's Office that provides legal aid for people charged with non-capital crimes
Public defenders under the new office need not be called to the bar, the Ministry of Law said.

  • A proposed public defender's office will provide criminal legal aid to Singaporeans with a per capita monthly houshold income of up to S$1,500
  • The Ministry of Law tabled a Public Defenders Bill on Monday (July 4) in Parliament 
  • The public defender's office will work together with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which also provides legal aid to the needy
  • Public defenders in the new office need not be called to the Bar, but must have the necessary skills and education qualifications


July 4, 2022

SINGAPORE — A new public defender’s office, which is being proposed, will help people whose per capita gross monthly household income is up to S$1,500 receive criminal legal aid, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said on Monday (July 4).

The ministry tabled a Public Defenders Bill in Parliament on Monday proposing the establishment of the new office, which is aimed at helping vulnerable Singaporeans and permanent residents who are charged with non-capital criminal offences but are unable to afford legal representation will be able to receive criminal legal aid.

However, the bill excludes regulatory offences — such as traffic summonses and minor departmental or statutory board charges — and 10 acts “whose main purpose is to deter specific behaviours that bring about negative externalities to society, namely gambling and betting, organised and syndicated crime and terrorism”, said MinLaw in a statement on Monday.

This was one of several details MinLaw released about the new public defender's office, the plans for which were first announced in parliament on April 4 during a ministerial statement by Minister for Law K Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Minister for Home Affairs, first brought up the possibility of such an office to improve access to justice for vulnerable populations in November 2020 during a ministerial hearing about the Parti Liyani case.

The public defender’s office will collaborate with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), which similarly provides criminal legal assistance for the vulnerable and covers offenses under 17 statutes, such as the Penal Code, Vandalism Act and the Women’s Charter.

To determine if someone is eligible for legal aid, both the public defender's office and Clas apply a means and merits test to applicants.

“Clas currently uses the applicant’s disposable income for their means testing, whereas the public defender’s office will utilise the per capita household income,” said MinLaw in response to queries from TODAY.

According to the Law Society’s website, disposable income includes salary, rental income, and other allowances and payouts alongside the income of one’s spouse in the past 12 months, after deducting S$6,000 for the applicant, S$6,000 for the working spouse, up to S$6,000 for each dependent and the applicant’s and spouse’s contributions to their Central Provident Fund.

To qualify under Clas’ existing income criteria, the applicant’s disposable income should not exceed S$10,000 over the last 12 months. This is equivalent to a per capita gross monthly household income of S$950.

In April, Mr Shanmugam had announced that the authorities are looking at expanding Clas' coverage by raising the monthly per capita household income cut-off from S$950 to S$1,500.

MinLaw said: “The adoption of the per capita household income criterion (for the public defender's office) to assess means is aligned with many other social schemes administered by the Government. As part of our plan to increase income coverage, the per capita household income criterion will increase from S$950 to S$1,500.”

The Ministry of Health also announced in March 2021 that it will be adopting per capita household income in providing subsidies for Singaporeans requiring hospitalisation for acute conditions from mid-2022. It also introduced a tier system based on per capita household income to differentiate subsidy levels for patients' hospital ward choices.

Should an applicant not satisfy the means test for the public defender’s office, the bill allows for the Minister to authorise the chief public defender to grant aid if he is in the opinion that aid should be granted.

“This flexibility allows extenuating factors such as an applicant’s medical illnesses and caregiving obligations to be considered when granting aid,” said MinLaw.

The Ministry added that more information on the public defender office’s means test will be released at a later stage.

Applicants will also have to satisfy a merits test to receive criminal legal aid from the office, where they require legal representation to plead guilty or there are reasonable grounds for defense, said MinLaw.

Under the bill, the chief public defender can require an applicant to co-pay the cost of legal aid that has been rendered to him, in a lump sum or by installments.

“The co-payment arrangement under the public defender’s office will be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and depends on each individual applicant’s circumstances such as per capita household income,” added MinLaw.

The chief public defender will have the power to require an applicant to co-pay the costs of legal aid that has been rendered to him, in a lump sum or by instalments, and will have the discretion to reduce, waive, or refund any such contributions.

At a later date, MinLaw said the public defender's office will adopt a hybrid model of managing some cases in-house while outsourcing others to the private sector.

The Bill has therefore included provisions for the chief public defender to appoint a panel of solicitors to act for applicants who have been granted aid, and to provide for fees to be paid to these solicitors. The fees payable to the solicitor will be agreed on between the chief public defender and the solicitor based on various considerations that include the complexity and novelty of the issues involved in the case, as well as the skill and specialised knowledge required of, and time and labour expended by the solicitor.

If applicants make false or misleading statements, fail to make "full and frank disclosure of means" or inform of any changes to the means or circumstances which may render them ineligible for criminal legal, they can face a fine not exceeding S$5,000 or imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months.

The Ministry said that public defenders under the new office will need not be called to the bar, but have to be “qualified persons with the necessary skills and educational qualifications”.

“We have in place a robust selection process and will ensure that the best candidates with the passion, aptitude, track record and relevant skill-sets are hired.”

It added that recruitment of public defenders is still ongoing, and it has received “good response from both fresh graduates and mid-career applicants thus far”.

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