Singapore

Lawyers laud proposal for fully govt-funded legal aid

Legal professionals also warn of challenges but say it will ensure justice for the needy

A proposal to have a fully government-funded public defenders' office in Singapore was lauded by the legal fraternity yesterday, as it will ensure access to justice for those with lower incomes and boost the country's reputation as a legal hub.

But legal professionals also warned of challenges, including deciding how much to pay the lawyers and having safeguards to ensure people do not abuse the system.

They made these points a day after Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam announced that the Government is studying the feasibility of setting up a public defenders' office.

The Law Ministry is in favour of it, he said, when announcing the plan in Parliament.

In such a set-up, the Government pays and employs the lawyers in a separate structure, to defend the accused in criminal cases who cannot afford to pay for their own lawyers.

Ms Stefanie Yuen Thio, joint managing partner at TSMP Law Corp, said the proposal was an "enormously significant step".

The move, she said, is an acknowledgement of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme - a public-private partnership to provide pro bono legal aid to the needy - and that establishing a government body would support the effort with more resources.

Law Professor Kumaralingam Amirthalingam of the National University of Singapore said a public defenders' office would be a "very important signal by the Government that it is committed to a criminal justice system that... respects the presumption of innocence".

It will eliminate situations of unequal outcomes simply because those who are rich can afford lawyers to defend them properly.

It would also improve the efficiency of the legal system as cases can move through the courts faster, said Prof Kumaralingam.

"If you're not represented by a lawyer, then it takes longer as you don't know the system and will take more time to consider whether to plead guilty or to claim trial."

Criminal lawyer Rajan Supramaniam, a consultant at Edmond Pereira Law Corp, stressed that the rules governing the functions of such an office will need to be clear.

"The Government will have to ensure that people don't take advantage of it, that members of public do not abuse it, and only the needy will be given the legal aid," he said.

Despite the exploitation in some countries, "it's not a reason not to do something", said Prof Kumaralingam, adding that appropriate measures need to be in place to monitor and audit the office.

The challenge is to fund the programme sufficiently for the long term to attract talent, without wasting public funds, the lawyers said.

But Ms Yuen Thio stressed the dedication lawyers have shown in pro bono cases "is born of the sense that we have an obligation to use our skills to help those who need it".

COURT & CRIME