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

SINGAPORE — A new Public Defender’s Office, which is being proposed, will help people receive criminal legal aid if their per capita gross monthly household income is up to S$1,500, the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said on Monday (July 4).
Legal professionals providing aid under a proposed Public Defender's Office need not be called to the Bar, the Ministry of Law said.
Legal professionals providing aid under a proposed Public Defender's Office need not be called to the Bar, the Ministry of Law said.
  • A proposed Public Defender’s Office will offer criminal legal aid to Singaporeans with a per capita monthly household income of up to S$1,500
  • The Ministry of Law tabled a Public Defenders Bill in Parliament on July 4
  • 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

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

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

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

This was one of several details that the ministry 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 Law Minister K Shanmugam.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also Home Affairs Minister, first brought up the possibility of such an office to improve access to justice for vulnerable populations in November 2020 during a ministerial hearing on the case of Parti Liyani, a domestic worker who was acquitted of stealing from her employer.

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 offences 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 the applicants.

In response to queries from TODAY, MinLaw said: “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.”

The Law Society of Singapore’s website states that 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 already 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 previously announced in March last year 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,” MinLaw said.

It added that more information on the Public Defender’s 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 should they need legal representation to plead guilty or there are reasonable grounds for defence, MinLaw added.

Under the proposed law, 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 instalments — and will have the discretion to reduce, waive, or refund any such contributions.

“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,” MinLaw said.

At a later date, 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 chief public defender and the solicitor will agree on the fees payable to 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 the solicitor, and the 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 the office of any changes to the means or circumstances that may render them ineligible for criminal legal, they can face a fine of up to S$5,000 or be jailed for up to six months.

MinLaw said that public defenders under the new office 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”.

Related topics

public defender's office minlaw Criminal Legal Aid Scheme Parliament

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