SINGAPORE: The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) is launching a number of programmes to widen access to justice for all Singaporeans, said Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong on Tuesday (Mar 2).
“There have been observations that the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened what some might term the ‘justice gap’,” said Mr Tong during the Committee of Supply debate.
The disruptions caused by the pandemic has affected disproportionately the vulnerable, who may find it harder to access legal services.
“This backdrop ... has deepened my ministry’s resolve to enhance access to justice for all Singaporeans,” he said.
On civil legal aid, he highlighted that the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) launched a free chatbot called iLAB in February last year.
While it usually provides information on topics such as divorce, personal protection orders, custody/guardianship and maintenance, during the pandemic, answers to commonly asked legal questions that arose from the COVID-19 situation were added, he said.
This year, the bureau will expand its partnerships with social agencies to offer legal advice via video-conferencing at places including Our Tampines Hub and more Family Service Centres. It will also add more topics to the iLAB chatbot.
Responding to a clarification from MP Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied), Mr Tong said that iLab is available only in English, but those who need help in other languages can approach the concierge and counter staff at LAB.
MinLaw is also working with the Law Society Pro Bono Services to develop a one-stop legal information portal.
Responding to MP Tan Wu Meng's (PAP-Jurong) concerns about extending flexibility in means testing to legal aid applicants, Mr Tong said that there are existing provisions in place.
For example, if an applicant has severe disability and/or illness, and/or is 60 years old or above, the means test assessment can exclude some of the applicant’s savings in computing their eligibility.
There is also a panel that reviews cases that do not meet the means criteria but are unable to afford basic legal services.
"I would like to assure Dr Tan that this panel has the full flexibility to decide if an applicant who may not have passed the means test should still qualify for legal aid," said Mr Tong, who is also the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth.
He said that a survey conducted by MinLaw in late 2020 found that three in four respondents agreed that legal aid is accessible to those in need.
A new means test criteria for civil legal aid was introduced in October 2019, using criteria such as per capita household income and the annual value of an applicant’s home. This year, the Government will extend this new means test criteria for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).
CRIMINAL LEGAL AID
Mr Tong said that the Government subsidises about 75 per cent of the operating cost of CLAS, or S$2 million a year on average.
The scheme receives an average of 2,400 applications annually – all of whom received some basic legal advice. More than half, or 1,400 applicants per year on average, received full legal representation, he said.
This is more than three times the number of applicants who had full legal representation before 2015.
“We are mindful of the need to and will continually and proactively review how we can enhance access to justice for accused persons of limited means,” Mr Tong said, adding that Singapore started reviewing its criminal legal aid model in 2019.
“This year we will conclude our study on how we can enhance the provision of criminal legal aid, including the coverage in terms of means criteria and offences, and the possibility of setting up a Public Defender's Office.”
This proposal, which was raised in Parliament by Law Minister K Shanmugam earlier, would have the Government appoint lawyers to those accused of crimes but who cannot afford legal representation.
Mr Tong added: “We are carefully studying the experiences of other countries to avoid the problems they encountered, such as abuse of legal aid by wealthy defendants.”
LITIGANTS WITHOUT LAWYERS
Mr Tong also addressed concerns filed by Ms Lim about litigants-in-person, or people who do not have lawyers.
He highlighted upcoming measures to help them, such as the new Rules of Court, scheduled for later this year, which will be written in modern, layman language. Forms and processes will be simplified, he added.
There are centres to provide support for these litigants, with free on-site legal advice and
emotional and psychological support, he said.
"Elderly or less well-educated persons ought not feel intimidated or apprehensive of participating in legal proceedings. Ample support is available to help them navigate the court process," he said.
To Ms Lim's suggestion that court documents could also come in languages other than English, Mr Tong said that for cases before the community courts and tribunals, or for cases involving simple court orders, litigants-in-person who need help may call the courts' hotline.
"They will be assisted by staff who can explain the content of documents to them, either over the phone, or on occasion, in-person when they meet," he added.
"For other cases, if a translation is required, litigants can be referred to third parties who provide translation services."
Those who need a court interpreter can also make a written request in advance through e-litigation. If no request is made ahead of time, the services of an interpreter on the day of the proceeding would depend on availability.
"Certainly, the judge will not proceed with a hearing, if one party is unable to follow the proceedings due to language difficulties," said Mr Tong.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this story reported Mr Tong as saying that court documents were available in other languages upon request. This is incorrect. He said that for some cases, if a translation is required, litigants can be referred to third parties who provide translation services. We apologise for the error.