Wednesday, 20 May 2015

Criminal Legal Aid Scheme: Help for those who can't afford lawyers

Govt pledges up to $3.5 million a year to criminal legal aid scheme
By Lim Yi Han, The Straits Times, 19 May 2015

HELP is on the way for more accused people who cannot afford lawyers, as the Government has pledged up to $3.5 million a year to fund the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).

The funds would help to cover operational costs, token fees for volunteer lawyers and other disbursements.

The state's decision to get involved for the first time in criminal defence represents a significant shift in the Government's policy, said Law Minister K. Shanmugam as he launched the enhanced CLAS at the State Courts yesterday.

"The Government decided to play a bigger role, and to better assess the defendants who cannot afford their own lawyers but should nevertheless not be left to face the criminal justice system by themselves," he said.

"A system where people with a genuine defence, a good defence, are unable to put it forward properly in court simply because they don't have the money, is also not a system that I think you and I will consider a good, civilised system."

The minister said it had been a personal journey, as an item on his to-do list when he took office was to see what could be done in this area.

"Because I had done some criminal work - not a lot - but I knew what the system was," he said.

In the past, the State had steered clear of providing criminal legal aid, as it would mean using public funds both to prosecute and defend the same accused individuals.

Its first injection is $800,000 for the initial costs of the scheme.

As many as 6,000 people may be helped each year - up from fewer than 500 now - through the scheme run by the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office.

The Law Society received 1,780 applications under CLAS last year, of which only 431 qualified for help.

Another enhancement is that volunteer lawyers who do pro bono work for CLAS will be given an honorarium, for the first time, of between $500 and $2,500, depending on how far a case progresses. There are currently around 400 lawyers on the scheme.

Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said: "The objective of the honorarium is, in some small way, to alleviate the financial pressure caused by the diversion of our volunteers' resources from fee-paying work... (it) serves as a token of gratitude."

Lawyer Abraham Vergis, who is the chairman of CLAS, said the token sum could make it economically viable for more lawyers to come on board.

The scheme has also been expanded into a four-tier system, providing help that ranges from information on available channels to full legal representation in court.

There is a revised means test as well, to allow more people to qualify for CLAS. Those with a disposable income of not more than $10,000 per year may be granted aid.

Previously, a person would qualify for help only if net monthly income was not more than $1,300 if single, and $1,700 if married.

Now, disposable income instead of net income will be used.

Another change will be to cover accused persons who plead guilty, or who face charges under the Moneylenders Act.

Previously, the scheme did not extend to those pleading guilty unless they were under 18 years old or had mental illnesses.

Also among the raft of changes is the CLAS Fellowship Programme, in which five lawyers are hired by the Law Society, or seconded by their law firms, to do criminal legal aid work full-time.

One of them, 30-year-old Sujatha Selvakumar, quit her job at a law firm and took a 30 per cent pay cut to join the Law Society in January.

She told The Straits Times that taking on pro bono cases gave her a chance to grow professionally.

"When I'm doing pro bono work, it allows me an opportunity to take the lead under the mentorship of more experienced lawyers. It's a very good training ground."

Her first pro bono case was in 2011, when she represented a group of five youths charged with rioting. The charges were eventually either dropped or reduced to miscellaneous offences.

She said: "For an accused person, knowing what to do in court is not easy if you're not legally trained.

"When I help others, I gain something too. For me, this job is a very natural choice and getting paid for what I'm doing is really a privilege."

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