Redefining Criminal Legal Aid in Singapore with the Public Defender's Office

By Sia Xinyu


https://www.todayonline.com/singapore/how-new-public-defenders-office-differ-lawsoc-criminal-legal-aid-scheme-1866531



What is the newly-proposed Public Defender’s Office?


On 4 April 2022, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced the setting up of a Public Defender’s Office (PDO) through a ministerial statement in Parliament. In a press statement released on the same day, MinLaw said that the Public Defender’s Bill will be tabled to establish the office, which aims to provide legal aid to Singaporeans who face non-capital criminal charges but are unable to afford their own lawyers. [1]


As a new department under MinLaw alongside the Legal Aid Bureau, the PDO will adopt a hybrid model comprising fresh graduates, young lawyers, mid-career hires who will take on legal aid cases as public defenders. [2] There are also plans to expand its scope at a later stage, where some cases will be outsourced to a panel of qualified lawyers.


Matching up to other jurisdictions


These new proposals come after an extensive study of different criminal legal aid models in 11 other jurisdictions, including Hong Kong and the United Kingdom. [3] Mr Shanmugam raised the case study of England and Wales for their fully government-funded criminal legal aid scheme, which has caused much public outcry due to abuse of the system and growing government costs. [4] This was especially so for lengthy trials concerning morally reprehensible cases where the defendants were ultimately convicted.


Evolution of criminal legal aid in Singapore


A similar scheme that has supported criminal legal aid in Singapore is the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), which is managed by the Law Society Pro Bono Services. The scheme currently provides legal aid to vulnerable accused persons, covering up to the 25th percentile of resident households. This income limit will now be raised to enable those up to the 35th income percentile to benefit, [5] allowing for more accused persons with limited means to have a lawyer representing them in court.


Lawyers have raised the concern that there might be potential confusion it may cause to both the profession and the public regarding the difference between cases taken by the PDO and CLAS. [6] In order to tackle this, some have suggested that the PDO take on more complicated cases while CLAS focuses on more straightforward ones. [7] It is also hoped that the establishment of the PDO and increasing the number of legal aid cases taken on will increase interest in the criminal law profession and pro-bono work.


In order to ensure the PDO remains sustainable, measures will need to be implemented to minimise abuse of the system and manage costs to ensure fiscal sustainability. [8] Raising lawyers’ pro-bono spirit will also be crucial to ensure that the PDO can continue operating in the long term. Ultimately, it is of utmost importance that resources are delegated to those who are genuinely deserving and in need of help.





References

[1] Louisa Tang, ‘New public defender’s office proposed to offer criminal legal aid to more needy Singaporeans’ Today Online (Singapore, 4 April 2022)

[2] Selina Lum, ‘More needy accused persons to get legal aid with new govt-funded public defender's office’ The Straits Times (Singapore, 4 April 2022)

[3] Ibid (n2)

[4] Fabian Koh, ‘Parliament: Govt studying setting up of public defenders' office for accused who can't afford lawyer, says Shanmugam’ The Straits Times (Singapore, 5 November 2020)

[5] Ibid (n1)

[6] Daryl Choo, ‘More clarity needed on type of cases to be handled by new public defender’s office, say lawyers’ Today Online (Singapore, 7 April 2022)

[7] Ibid (n6)

[8] Ang Hwee Min, ‘Public Defender’s Office may be set up this year to provide criminal legal aid’ Channel NewsAsia (Singapore, 4 April 2022)