Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Foreign Affairs and Law, at the Official Launch of the Enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme
The Honourable Justice of Appeal Justice Chao Hick Tin
Deputy Attorney-General Tan Siong Thye
Presiding Judge of the State Courts See Kee Oon
President of the Law Society Thio Shen Yi
Colleagues from Ministry of Law
1. In November 2013, my Ministry announced that we would start funding criminal legal aid to really enhance access to justice for litigants-in-person.
2. That represented a significant shift in government policy. Based on the estimates from the State Courts, there are about 12,000 litigants-in-person per year, of whom we think about 6,000 could benefit from some sort of legal representation. The number of applicants to CLAS has also been steadily increasing over the years, and because of limited resources, CLAS has not been able to represent all those who deserve representation.
3. 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.
4. After a year of preparation, the enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme started offering its services in January this year. I am really happy that through this official launch, we can now reach out to even more accused persons in need of legal assistance.
Close Collaboration with Stakeholders
5. We have been able to move this quickly because of strong support from key stakeholders.
6. My Ministry worked closely with the Courts, the Law Society, and the Criminal Bar to set up the policy and operational framework for enhanced CLAS.
7. I would like to thank the legal community. Without your support, your positive contributions and active participation, this would not be possible.
8. As you heard, the five largest law firms have either seconded lawyers or sponsored lawyers to work for CLAS full-time as CLAS Fellows.
9. We now therefore have an inaugural group of five CLAS Fellows, and they will be joined by a sixth in July.
10. Other law firms have stepped forward and contributed generously. 22 law firms have pledged to take on more than 300 CLAS cases, as you heard from Shen Yi.
11. Individual senior criminal law practitioners have also signed up as Lead Lawyers.
12. They have been lending their experience and helping to make initial assessment of cases, provide basic legal advice, and to decide if cases should be channelled onwards to Tier 3, unbundled services, or Tier 4, full representation.
13. This is in addition to the many lawyers who have been the backbone of CLAS with their long-term commitment.
14. I would like to encourage the legal profession, more lawyers and law firms, to come on board and support CLAS.
15. Second, I would like to commend the Criminal Legal Assistance Steering Committee.
16. That Committee was set up in January of last year to develop the policies for enhanced CLAS to ensure that the scheme would help deserving cases.
17. The Committee has representation from the Courts, Law Society, the Criminal Bar and, of course, MinLaw.
18. Under the leadership of (then-Justice Tan) Siong Thye and now, (Judicial Commissioner See) Kee Oon, the Committee has made excellent progress.
19. They have enabled enhanced CLAS to get off to a good start with a sound policy framework.
20. And I would like to acknowledge the Law Society, in particular its Pro Bono Services Office, which will continue to operate the enhanced scheme.
21. Organising the increased volunteer resources, administering the new means test, coordinating payment for the new honoraria system, the Pro Bono Services Office has worked tirelessly to roll out the scheme.
22. MinLaw and the Law Society enjoy a strong partnership.
23. I am confident that the dedication of all those involved will help us continue helping accused persons gain access to the legal help, guidance and assurance they need.
24. For me personally, this has been a journey, because one of the items in my to-do list when I first became a Minister was to see what we can do in this field.
25. Because I had done some criminal work – not a lot, but I knew what the system was.
26. There are really two aspects to it.
27. One, in a sense, it would be easy to say, in theory at least, that the government should just completely fund all legal aid.
28. Possible, but the countries which have gone down that route have found it very costly and ultimately, ridden with abuse.
29. UK, Australia, New Zealand have all found that to their cost, and had to cut back, with hugely wealthy people living off the taxpayer’s money, employing QCs and fighting cases which were completely unmeritorious.
30. The system takes over and metastasizes.
31. That is something that the government had to be very careful about when we want to put the taxpayer's, your money, into something. Is that the way to go?
32. On the other hand, a system where people with a genuine defence, a good defence, are unable to put forward it 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.
33. So how do we narrow the gap?
34. I think it was recognised, the government has to come in, it has to put the resources in.
35. At the same time, it has to have a proper assessment process and with some sort of co-payment, and it has got to be rigorous.
36. And this is where I would like to thank the partnership with Law Society, which has come forward. We have studied many different forms, even before this last one year.
37. Since 2008, I have been looking at different variations. Not an easy thing to do because it is a long established government policy that you will not put funding directly into this.
38. So we have been working through the Supreme Court, State Courts, Subordinate Courts, then Law Society and finally, we have come down to this formula.
39. Going back to one other point that Shen Yi made, where the quality of legal representation should not depend on the amount of money one has, I'm not sure we will achieve that ideal, to be frank about it.
40. I say that from personal experience.
41. Long ago one of the things that has stuck with me and which made me be quite passionate about this, is a question that my son asked me after one of my criminal cases.
42. He said, look, you got him off; he could afford you. What about if he could not have afforded you?
43. So I told him actually that was pro bono. But the point is a fair one.
44. So we are not going to achieve that ideal, but I think we can do better than what we've been doing, as long as we are realistic about what our goals and ideals are.
45. We're not going to have equality of arms, but there are many things that we can do to try and have a better balance, one of which is have a better professionalism amongst our younger criminal lawyers, train them by having a dedicated university that looks at young people, trains them for the criminal legal profession. When they come out, the whole system of mentorship, I think we can do better.
46. Thank you again for all your support.