Parliament passes Bill to set up Public Defender's Office
The way has been paved for a Public Defender's Office (PDO) to be set up by year end, after Parliament on Monday (Aug 1) passed a Bill to establish it to provide criminal legal aid to the needy.
Under the scheme, Singaporeans and permanent residents who are facing criminal charges but cannot afford a lawyer can have a full-time public defender represent them in court, if they pass a means test and a merits test.
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Law Rahayu Mahzam said in her speech that the exact means test criteria will comprise two components - income and wealth - and will be laid out in subsidiary legislation.
The income criterion is the monthly per capita household income threshold of up to $1,500, or around the 35th percentile of resident households by income.
This is an increase from the coverage of around the 25th percentile of households, under the existing Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), which is run by the Law Society Pro Bono Services and funded by the Government and private donations.
It is the equivalent of people whose monthly per capita household income is less than $950.
The wealth component looks at an applicant's savings, assets and investments.
Even if an applicant does not satisfy the means test criteria, the Law Minister can direct the Chief Public Defender to grant aid if the minister is of the opinion that it is just and proper to do so, said Ms Rahayu.
"This gives leeway to provide aid to those who do not satisfy the means test criteria, but are unable to afford legal services due to extenuating circumstances.
"For example, an applicant may be battling an illness, or may have to care for an incapacitated family member. We will consider all relevant circumstances in the grant of aid," she added.
In April, Law Minister K. Shanmugam announced the move to set up the fully government-funded PDO, marking a significant shift in the Government's policy on criminal legal aid.
The move followed a fundamental shift in 2015, when the Government started funding Clas.
The Public Defenders Bill that was passed on Monday provides for the appointment of the Chief Public Defender and public defenders, the scope of criminal defence aid, the administration of aid and a penalty framework to deter abuse.
Ms Rahayu told the House that the establishment of a criminal defence aid scheme, to be administered by the PDO, came after at least 10 consultations with the Law Society and Criminal Bar over the last two years.
She noted that the previous view taken by the Government was that the State should not be paying to defend accused people.
"For a long time, the balance has been struck against providing representation," she said.
"This is a question of judgment, and our view is that the right balance was struck at that time. However, in today's Singapore, we think that the balance has shifted."
The PDO, which will be set up as a department under the Law Ministry, will provide aid to eligible people charged with all non-capital offences with specific exceptions.
Regulatory offences such as traffic summonses and minor statutory board charges, as well as 10 specific Acts, are excluded.
For the merits test, aid can be granted where the applicant requires legal representation to plead guilty, or there are reasonable grounds for defence, said Ms Rahayu.
In cases where legal aid is required urgently, applicants can be issued with a provisional grant of aid.
"This ensures that no deserving applicant will be denied aid while waiting for the means and merits tests to be completed," she added.
And in cases where multiple accused persons qualify for aid, the PDO will represent only one person, to prevent any potential or perceived conflicts of interest.
Ms Rahayu said the Chief Public Defender will decide which accused person will be represented by the PDO, and the others may be referred to Clas.
Applicants will be required to co-pay the costs of legal aid, to ensure that they contribute towards their defence and do not abuse the system.
"The less they have, the less they pay, and vice versa. Those with very little savings and investments may even pay nothing," she added.
And those who abuse the system by making false or misleading statements about their means can face a maximum fine of $5,000 or a maximum jail term of six months.
Twelve MPs rose to speak in support of the Bill.
They also raised concerns about the independence of the PDO, funding, the quality of public defenders and the scope of offences covered.
Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) concluded in her speech: “This Bill represents an important milestone for Singapore’s criminal justice system.
“The PD scheme has the potential to go some way towards addressing the imbalance of power and resources between the state prosecution and an accused person. For that alone, I welcome this development.”
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