Friday 22 June 2012

Community Justice Centre: No lawyer? New centre set up to help

Five organisations are joining hands to launch the non-profit initiative
By Bryna Sim, The Straits Times, 21 Jun 2012

FIVE groups signed a Memorandum of Understanding yesterday to establish a new centre to help people who want to represent themselves in court.

Called the Community Justice Centre, it will be located at Level 1 of the Subordinate Courts and will open by the end of the year.

The non-profit centre will give information on various court procedures to unrepresented litigants. The centre's volunteers may also attend court with them, and refer them to free legal clinics for advice if necessary.

The five organisations are the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports, the Ministry of Law, the Subordinate Courts, the Law Society of Singapore and the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, which is giving $250,000 a year to the centre for its first three years of operations.

Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong said in his opening address that work on the centre started in 2010 after a study was conducted to give the courts a better understanding of the challenges people face when representing themselves in court.

He said the study - based on interviews with more than 600 self-represented litigants in the district courts and magistrate's courts here - revealed that more than 80 per cent of the respondents needed more information and explanation on court procedures, as well as access to some form of legal advice.

'Many litigants-in-person go to court alone,' said Chief Justice Chan. 'Hence, it is clear that they need not just legal help or enforcement of the letter of the law, but just as importantly, assistance from social services.'

The existing Help Centre will be integrated into the new Community Justice Centre.

Mr Chew Kwee San, council member of the Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, said the new centre would help people who may find the courts intimidating.

'Unrepresented litigants tend to be people who are not so well-off, who may find coming to court intimidating.'

He added that the centre would help litigants be better informed about their legal choices.

'The centre's integrated, not-for-profit, one-stop model streamlines the type of help litigants receive and at an early stage, before their legal problems snowball further,' he said.

One-third of accused have no lawyers
With limited funds and manpower, legal groups cannot help all
By Jeremy Lim, The Strait Times, 17 Jun 2012

Going to court without a lawyer can be like stepping into the ring against a trained boxer, says the Law Society's pro bono services director Lim Tanguy.

It can be intimidating, especially for the poor and lowly educated.

But last year, about 78,000 people accused of crimes at the Subordinate Courts had no lawyer. These represented one-third of all cases, said the courts. It is not known how many could not afford a lawyer, as some might have preferred to represent themselves.

The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) and Association of Criminal Lawyers (ACLS) have been helping those who cannot afford lawyers.

Last year, they defended about 350 poor people for free. But with limited funds and manpower, they can only help selectively. For example, a person with no dependants must earn under $1,300 a month to qualify for CLAS. Because of this and other restrictions, the scheme turned away 794 people last year.

CLAS is run by the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office and calls on a force of 332 volunteer lawyers to represent cases, while ACLS has about 10 volunteer lawyers.

A 'plead guilty' case can require 12 to 15 hours of a lawyer's time, while a 'claim trial' case might need 60 to 70 hours, said Mr Lim.

CLAS hopes to help more people, but it needs more funding and volunteers, he added. The Pro Bono Services Office is supported by donations from law firms, as well as $300,000 a year from the Ministry of Law and $100,000 a year from the Academy of Law.

The money is mainly used to run CLAS and walk-in legal clinics. CLAS chairman Gopinath Pillai said although he would like to pay volunteer lawyers for their time, the scheme has insufficient funds.

The Legal Aid Bureau provides help for those in civil cases like divorce and inheritance disputes. It is staffed mainly by full-time lawyers paid by the Ministry of Law.

When it comes to criminal legal aid, the State has a Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences, for those facing the death penalty or life imprisonment.

The Ministry of Law said it is reviewing how it can do more for criminal legal aid. But it added that spending more on aid could mean raising taxes or reducing other types of expenditure.

Most lawyers interviewed said the deck is stacked against the accused who go to court without lawyers, especially the low income. National University of Singapore criminal law lecturer Michael Hor said: 'Those who cannot afford appropriate legal representation, when compared with those who can, are less likely to be acquitted.'

ACLS president Subhas Anandan said: 'It is very important for accused persons to be represented. The State has an overwhelming advantage in terms of resources even when the accused is defended by lawyers, and the odds are further stacked against accused persons when they are not represented.'

To apply for criminal legal aid, call CLAS on 6534 1564.

Where there is acute need
By Jeremy Lim, The Strait Times, 17 Jun 2012

Loan shark-related cases are an area in acute need of legal aid, lawyers say.

There have been more such cases recently, likely due to police efforts to stamp out illegal moneylending and harassment. From 10,200 cases in 2006, the number rose to 18,600 in 2009, then fell to 13,300 last year.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan says those involved in such cases often fall through the gaps in the system because they cannot afford a lawyer.

'Many of them are vulnerable, young and lowly educated,' said Mr Tan, of Patrick Tan LLC. 'That's why they work for loan sharks, in desperation to pay back their debts and avoid further harassment from them.'

The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme does not cover loan shark-related cases as it has limited funds and volunteer lawyers. But an accused may find a lawyer willing to defend him for free on an ad hoc basis. This year, Mr Tan defended for free a pregnant divorcee in her 20s with three children. She could have been fined and jailed for opening a bank account and lending her ATM card to a loan shark. But she was let off with a conditional stern warning.

No comments:

Post a Comment