Establishment of the Public Defender’s Office with the introduction of the Public Defenders Bill
04 Jul 2022 Posted in Press releases
- The Ministry of Law (“MinLaw”) introduced the Public Defenders Bill (the “Bill”) for First Reading in Parliament today.
- The Bill, when enacted, will provide for the establishment of the Public Defender’s Office (“PDO”) as a department under MinLaw to administer criminal legal aid.
Provisions of the Bill
The Bill provides for the following:
(a) Appointment of a Chief Public Defender and public defenders;
(b) Scope of criminal legal aid coverage, including the coverage of offences eligible for criminal legal aid;
(c) Administration of criminal legal aid by the PDO; and
(d) A penalty framework to prevent abuse of aid.
(a) Appointment of a Chief Public Defender and public defenders
- The Bill provides for the Minister for Law (“Minister”) to appoint a Chief Public Defender (“Chief PD”), Deputy Chief Public Defenders, and Assistant Chief Public Defenders to carry out the duties under the Bill.
- Under this provision, the Chief PD, who will oversee the administration of the PDO, will also be authorised to appoint public officers and other individuals that the Chief PD considers as duly qualified and experienced to carry out duties as public defenders, as assigned by the Chief PD. This includes the right to represent the aided accused person in court.
(b) Scope of criminal legal aid coverage
- The Bill provides for the PDO to render criminal legal aid to eligible vulnerable Singaporeans and Permanent Residents, who are charged with non-capital criminal offences but are unable to afford legal representation due to limited means.
- The Bill excludes regulatory offences such as traffic summonses and minor departmental/statutory board charges, as well as 10 specific Acts1 whose main purpose is to deter specific behaviours that bring about negative externalities to society, namely gambling and betting, organised and syndicated crime and terrorism.
- In addition, the Bill does not cover private prosecutions that have not been taken up by the Attorney-General. The PDO will only cover State prosecutions.
(c) Administration of criminal legal aid by the PDO
Qualifying means and merits tests
- The Chief PD may approve an application for criminal legal aid if the applicant satisfies both the means and merits tests.
- Where the applicant does not satisfy or is not likely to satisfy the means test, the Bill allows the Minister to authorise the Chief PD to grant aid if he is of the opinion that it is just and proper that aid be granted. This flexibility allows extenuating factors such as an applicant’s medical illnesses and caregiving obligations to be considered when granting aid.
- The Minister can also authorise any person or panel of persons to exercise his power to override the Chief PD’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.
- For the merits test, aid can be granted where the applicant requires legal representation to plead guilty or there are reasonable grounds for defence. The merits test is conducted by the Chief PD, or for certain prescribed offences, by a board comprising the Chief PD and at least two private practice lawyers.
- The Bill also gives the Chief PD the discretion to refuse aid where it is not appropriate in the circumstances to do so. These could include circumstances where the applicant may not benefit from legal representation, such as cases with established sentencing frameworks.
- The Minister also has the discretion to direct the Chief PD 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.
- The Chief PD will have the power to require an applicant to co-pay the costs of legal aid that has been rendered to him, in a lump sum or by instalments. The Chief PD will have the discretion to reduce, waive, or refund any such contributions.
Panel of solicitors
- At a later date, the PDO will adopt a hybrid model of managing some cases in-house while outsourcing others to the private sector. The Bill has therefore included provisions for the Chief PD 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 PD 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.
(d) Penalty framework
- The Bill also provides for criminal penalties of a fine not exceeding $5,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding six months, for offences involving the making of false or misleading statements, the failure to make full and frank disclosure of means and the failure to inform the Chief PD of any change to the means or circumstances of the applicant which may render him or her ineligible for criminal legal aid.
MINISTRY OF LAW
04 JULY 2022
1. The ten excluded Acts are: Remote Gambling Act 2014, Common Gaming Houses Act, Casino Control Act, Betting Act, Organised Crime Act 2015, Massage Establishment Act 2017, Terrorism (Suppression of Financing) Act, Terrorism (Suppression of Bombings) Act, Terrorism (Suppression of Misuse of Radioactive Material) Act 2017, and Gambling Control Act 2022.↩
Last updated on 04 Jul 2022