SINGAPORE: More Singaporeans may be able to benefit from free legal aid for civil cases in the future as the Ministry of Law (MinLaw) is reviewing its criteria for who can seek help from the Legal Aid Bureau, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said on Friday (Mar 2).
The means testing for legal aid is being reviewed and the details will be announced later in the year, Ms Indranee said during the Committee of Supply debates in Parliament.
"Even as we seek to help more, our guiding principle is that our system should assist those with meritorious cases but who really cannot afford a lawyer," she said.
The ministry has been working with the judiciary and legal practitioners to keep legal costs affordable and reduce the complexity of civil proceedings, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said as the House debated MinLaw's budget.
It is also studying measures to strengthen the enforcement of civil judgments and public consultation is likely to take place later this year, he said.
In response to a query by Member of Parliament (MP) Patrick Tay, Mr Shanmugam said that the claim limit of S$10,000 for the Small Claims Tribunal will be raised.
Disputes involving claims of higher value can potentially be heard at the tribunal when the amendment is made later this year.
"We hope it will allow claims to be resolved quickly, cost-effectively, at the Small Claims Tribunals," Mr Shanmugam said.
NO NEED TO REVIEW NUMBER OF JUDGES ON CAPITAL CASES
Mr Shanmugam also said that it is not reviewing yet whether more judges should sit in trials for capital cases, where the penalty may be death.
"We haven't seen a need to review this but it does not mean no," said Mr Shanmugam in response to MP Christopher de Souza.
"Members will know, since 2012, if a person is sentenced to death and chooses not to appeal, a confirmation hearing must still be held by the Court of Appeal," Mr Shanmugam said.
That ensures that the imposition of the death sentence will always be examined by at least three judges of the apex court, he added.
Ms Indranee also gave an update on legal aid rendered in criminal cases where lawyers are assigned to accused persons who cannot afford a lawyer.
Since 2015, the Government has provided close to S$6 million to the Law Society Pro Bono Services, allowing help to four times as many applicants in 2017 compared to pre-2015, she said.
On international law, Mr Shanmugam said that his ministry will continue to engage with the global community and other states to develop international law expertise as new challenges arise.
Internationally, Singapore plays a role in dispute resolution which is a growth area for the local legal industry. The Singapore International Arbitration Centre saw a record-breaking 343 new cases totalling S$17 billion in 2016 and 80 per cent of these cases were international in nature, he said.
"How do we ensure we remain a destination of choice, for dispute resolution? The starting point is people must believe and know that there's going to be top quality legal expertise available here if they come," Mr Shanmugam said.
"What the government can do is to make sure our dispute resolution framework is modern, is friendly. We will continue to make necessary legislative enhancements to make sure that it is at the cutting edge."
Ms Indranee also touched on her ministry's involvement in the Infrastructure Office, which was announced in this year's Budget to bring together local and international partners to work on projects in Asia which are estimated to be worth US$26 trillion (S$34 trillion) over the next 15 years.
Many projects are unable to obtain financing due to lack of bankability, usually because of "the lack of proper project preparation, project structuring, and technical issues", she said.
"Singapore is uniquely placed to address these problems. We are a leading financial centre, and Singapore-based banks have provided loans or financial advisory services for an estimated 60 per cent of infrastructure projects in ASEAN," Ms Indranee said.