Law Ministry launches Public Defender’s Office, first fully government-funded scheme to provide criminal defence aid

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SINGAPORE: The Public Defender’s Office (PDO), the first of its kind in Singapore that will provide criminal defence for certain types of accused persons who cannot afford legal representation, was launched by the Ministry of Law on Thursday (Dec 1).

The PDO is fully government-funded and follows a shift in 2015, when the Government began funding the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).

It also comes after Law Minister K Shanmugam said the Government would study the details and feasibility of a public defender scheme in 2020, while addressing the case of Parti Liyani, the Indonesian migrant domestic worker acquitted of stealing from her employer.

Under the PDO, the income limit has been raised from the 25th percentile to cover up to the 35th percentile of resident households. The scope of coverage was also expanded to cover most types of criminal offences except capital ones.

The PDO is helmed by newly appointed Chief Public Defender Wong Kok Weng. Mr Wong was formerly a deputy public prosecutor in the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC). 

He will oversee the operations and administration of the PDO and ensure that deserving applicants receive aid, said the Ministry of Law in a statement.

As Chief Public Defender, he will also appoint and assign public defenders to represent aided accused persons in court.

The Public Defender’s Office was officially launched by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong.

Others in attendance include Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Law, Mr K Shanmugam and Attorney-General Lucien Wong.

HOW TO APPLY

To apply for aid under the PDO, Singaporeans and permanent residents may apply online or in person at the MinLaw Services Centre at Maxwell Road, or the State Courts HELP Centre at Havelock Square.

Those who are in remand or prison can apply directly through the Singapore Prison Service.

The PDO will assess the means and merits of applications and work with Pro Bono SG, which will continue to provide criminal defence aid under CLAS.

Cases that are assessed to be urgent will be represented by a public defender from the PDO. These include remand cases where the applicant has been remanded for a period that is longer than their likely sentence or cases involving minors who are turning 21 years old.

The remaining cases will be allocated between the PDO and Pro Bono SG.

PRIVATE DEFENCE LAWYERS’ VIEWS

Criminal lawyers CNA spoke to largely welcomed the launch. Lawyer Suang Wijaya from Eugene Thuraisingam’s law firm said this is a good measure that will enhance justice for the sandwiched class.

He said the private criminal defence bar has co-existed well with the eligibility enhancements to the CLAS scheme over the years.

“I am confident that this will similarly be the case with the creation of the PDO. Greater public awareness of criminal justice and rights will likely benefit the private criminal bar as well,” he said.

Lawyer Anil Singh Sandhu said the establishment of the office can only benefit society, as it serves to enhance access to justice for vulnerable segments of the populace.

“It would be interesting to see how the PDO, once it is up and running, works with Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) to meet this objective,” he said.

The establishment of the PDO is a significant milestone in Singapore’s legal history, said lawyer Sunil Sudheesan.

“The success of CLAS both in terms of management and people served is the example for PDO to follow,” he said.

“I know CLAS will fully support the PDO and the PDO will always need CLAS. I am happy that more vulnerable poor accused persons will receive competent representation in their criminal matters. Ultimately, our society will benefit from a PDO that will challenge AGC to be better.”

Lawyer Ramesh Tiwary said no one can deny that the ideal situation is for an accused person to be represented.

“However, as far as the PDO is concerned, it deals with public funds and it is equally important that only those that qualify should receive aid and the system must be careful to prevent abuse,” he said.

He added that the PDO will impact private practitioners and the Government ought to alleviate or soften its impact. Some measures he suggested include allowing private defence lawyers access to PDO knowledge and data based on the law, and farming out a certain percentage of all accepted access to private practitioners.

However, he said there were many other ways the private sector could benefit directly from the PDO, as the latter is better financed and supported than the vast majority of criminal lawyers.

Lawyer Josephus Tan, who has received awards for his pro bono contributions such as the Pro Bono Ambassador Award by the Law Society, said there is no true access to justice without a public defender’s office in a modern society.

“It’s been a long time coming and I’m glad it’s finally arrived. That said, I hope to see more awareness for this historic initiative from the various legal stakeholders. After all, the success of any initiative is not determined by its birth but by how many lives it can impact,” he said.

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