SINGAPORE: A Bill that simplifies means testing for legal aid and makes it easier for aid to be given to people who fail the means test was passed in Parliament on Monday (Nov 19).
Under the Legal Aid and Advice (Amendment) Bill, the means criteria for legal aid will be updated and aligned with those more commonly used by current social support schemes.
Applicants for legal aid had to satisfy a means test based on their disposable income and disposable capital, which includes an assessment of their income and expenses, savings and assets.
This will be changed to indicators such as per capita household income, the annual value of the applicant's place of residence, and his savings and investments.
Many documents that prove disposable income and capital were required and the changes will make these redundant.
"Applicants will no longer need to provide various documentary proof of deductibles," Senior Minister of State for Law Edwin Tong said during the second reading of the Bill.
The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) said the new means criteria will simplify and shorten the application process for legal aid.
Currently, about 25 per cent of households are eligible for legal aid, which is administered by the Legal Aid Bureau, a department under MinLaw. In 2017, the bureau received about 9,000 applications.
"Even with various Government-driven initiatives to reduce the costs of dispute resolution, we recognise that some in our society may still be unable to afford their own lawyers for basic legal services," Mr Tong said.
MORE FLEXIBILITY IN PROVIDING LEGAL AID
Other than simplifying the means criteria, the Bill also provides greater flexibility for legal aid to be given where it is "just and proper" to do so, for example, to those with extenuating circumstances.
Currently, the Legal Aid and Advice Act allows only limited deviation from the means criteria, Mr Tong said.
The Director of Legal Aid may grant limited exemptions to the means test only in four specific cases, including if the applicant lives apart from a spouse, or has a sudden physical or mental disability.
"However, the Act restricts how much the Director can do in these situations. It also does not allow the means criteria to be adjusted for other applicants who fail to satisfy the means criteria but do not fall into any of these four categories," Mr Tong said.
He gave the example of an applicant who fails the means criteria but cannot afford legal services because he has a serious illness and has to pay for major medical procedures.
Under the amended Bill, the minister will have the discretion to provide help for someone like that.
MPS ASK FOR MORE PEOPLE TO BE COVERED
In response to questions from MPs on the number of applications and proportion of people who failed the means test, Mr Tong said that in the past 10 years, the Legal Aid Bureau has received more than 97,000 applications.
Of these, more than 90 per cent passed the preliminary means test, Mr Tong said, adding that about half of bureau's cases concern matrimonial cases. Other common cases include the enforcement of court orders and monetary disputes.
"In general, applicants who were unsuccessful had failed the eligibility criteria because they exceeded the disposable income or capital assets limit," Mr Tong said.
Mr Tong said in response to MP Louis Ng, who asked for more people to be covered, that MinLaw regularly reviews the means test for civil legal aid, taking into account legal cost, the cost of living and other factors to ensure that legal aid remains accessible to people who cannot afford their own lawyers.
To questions on the new qualifying limits, he said they will be set later, taking into account this year's income data, and they will be set at a level which will have "no material impact" on the number of households that are eligible for legal aid, Mr Tong said.
MP Gan Thiam Poh asked if it is possible for household income to include family members who are supported financially by the applicant, but do not live together.
To this, Mr Tong said that the opposite scenario may also apply, where a person living elsewhere is supporting the applicant.
He stressed however that under the amendments, the minister will have the discretion to make the decision to provide legal aid even for an applicant who does not satisfy the means criteria.