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Bill introduced to set up Public Defender's Office that provides legal aid for people charged with non-capital crimes

Bill introduced to set up Public Defender's Office that provides legal aid for people charged with non-capital crimes

File photo of a gavel. (Photo: CNA/Jeremy Long)

SINGAPORE: A Public Defender’s Office (PDO) that will administer criminal legal aid may soon be established, with the introduction of a Bill in Parliament on Monday (Jul 4). 

If enacted, the Bill will provide for the establishment of the PDO as a department under the Ministry of Law (MinLaw). It will also provide for the appointment of a chief public defender and public defenders, as well as lay out the scope for criminal legal aid coverage. 

It also covers how the PDO will administer criminal legal aid and a penalty framework to prevent abuse of the aid, said MinLaw in a press release on Monday.

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam said in April that MinLaw aims to establish a PDO by the end of this year. In 2020, while addressing the Parti Liyani case, Mr Shanmugam said the Government would study the details and feasibility of a public defender scheme. 

Former domestic worker Ms Parti was found guilty of stealing from her employer, former Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong. She was eventually acquitted after the High Court found several issues with the conviction and how the case was handled.

WHAT IS COVERED UNDER THE PDO? 

If the proposed Bill is passed, the criminal legal aid under the PDO will be available to eligible “vulnerable” Singaporeans and permanent residents who are charged with non-capital criminal offences but are unable to afford legal representation because of their limited means, the ministry said.

This means offences punishable by death, such as murder, will not be covered by the PDO. 

Regulatory offences like traffic summonses and minor departmental or statutory board charges will not be covered.

The Bill also excludes 10 Acts that "deter specific behaviours that bring about negative externalities to society", such as gambling and betting, organised and syndicated crime, as well as terrorism.

The PDO will only cover State prosecutions. This means it will not cover private prosecutions that have not been taken up by the Attorney-General, said the ministry. 

In April, MinLaw said the PDO will deliver criminal legal aid alongside the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. It said then that the Bill would propose to expand criminal legal aid coverage by raising the income limit and by expanding the scope of support to cover most offences.

The income coverage of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme will be increased from the 25th to the 35th percentile of resident households, raising the per capita household income cut-off from S$950 to S$1,500, Mr Shanmugam said in April.

WHO CAN GET HELP? 

If the accused person applying for legal aid satisfies both the “means and merits tests”, the chief public defender can approve their application, said MinLaw on Monday.

The merits test will be conducted by the chief public defender, or for certain offences, by a board comprising the chief public defender and two private practice lawyers.

For the merits test, aid can be granted where the applicant needs legal representation to plead guilty or where there are “reasonable grounds for defence”, the ministry added. 

"The Bill also gives the chief public defender the discretion to refuse aid where it is not appropriate in the circumstances to do so," said MinLaw.

"These could include circumstances where the applicant may not benefit from legal representation, such as cases with established sentencing frameworks."

Under the proposed Bill, the Law Minister can also direct the chief public defender to grant aid in a case where aid was not granted, if "he is of the opinion that it is in the interests of justice to do so", said MinLaw.

If the applicant does not or is not likely to satisfy the means test, the Bill allows the minister to authorise the chief public defender to grant aid if "he is of the opinion that it is just and proper".

“This flexibility allows extenuating factors such as an applicant’s medical illnesses and caregiving obligations to be considered when granting aid,” said MinLaw. 

If the Bill is passed, the Law Minister can also authorise any person or panel of people to exercise their power to override the chief public defender's decision to refuse aid where the applicant fails the means test.

"This is no different from the approach for government-funded civil legal aid administered by the Legal Aid Bureau," said the ministry.

WHO WILL RUN THE PDO?

If the Bill is passed, a chief public defender, deputy chief public defenders, and assistant chief public defenders will be appointed. 

The chief public defender will oversee the administration of the PDO and can appoint public officers and other individuals who are “duly qualified and experienced” to carry out duties as public defenders, said MinLaw. This includes the right to represent the aided accused person in court.

"At a later date, the PDO will adopt a hybrid model of managing some cases in-house while outsourcing others to the private sector," said MinLaw.

The Bill has included provisions for the chief public defender to appoint a panel of solicitors to act for applicants who have been granted aid, and to provide for fees to be paid to these solicitors.

"The fees payable to the solicitor will be agreed on between the chief public defender and the solicitor based on various considerations that include the complexity and novelty of the issues involved in the case, as well as the skill and specialised knowledge required of, and time and labour expended by the solicitor," said MinLaw.

The chief public defender will have the power to require an applicant to co-pay the costs of legal aid that has been given to him or her, in a lump sum or by instalments. The chief public defender will also have the discretion to reduce, waive, or refund such payments.

The Bill also proposes criminal penalties for any abuse of the aid. These include a fine of up to S$5,000 and a maximum jail term of six months for offences involving the making of false or misleading statements or the failure to make "full and frank disclosure of means".

Applicants who fail to inform the chief public defender of any change to their means or circumstances that may render them ineligible for criminal legal aid may also face such penalties.

Source: CNA/hw(mi)

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