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HomesingaporePublic Defender's Office has taken 303 cases to court since its launch

Public Defender's Office has taken 303 cases to court since its launch

SINGAPORE: As of September, the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) has taken up 303 applications that have gone to court, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said on Tuesday (Nov 7).

The minister was giving an update on the PDO’s work in response to a question by Member of Parliament Murali Pillai (PAP-Bukit Batok).

The PDO was launched in December 2022 to provide criminal defence aid to people facing non-capital charges who cannot afford a lawyer.

It is fully government-funded and staffed by full-time criminal defence lawyers hired by the Ministry of Law.

Mr Shanmugam said eligible applicants for criminal defence aid get representation from either the PDO or Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).

With this co-delivery model, CLAS’ annual caseload in 2023 is expected to be lower than in 2022, he added.

DEFENDING “MORALLY REPUGNANT” CASES

Mr Pillai asked how the PDO assesses whether to provide legal aid to cases involving alleged crimes that are seen as “morally repugnant”.

Mr Shanmugam acknowledged that applicants for criminal defence aid include people accused of serious crimes like sexual assault against vulnerable victims.

Each application undergoes means and merits tests to ensure aid is given to those who are deserving.

“These assessments are not based on the nature of the alleged offences or the moral reprehensibility of the applicant,” he stressed.

The means test ensures the applicant cannot afford legal fees, while the merits test assess whether the applicant will benefit from representation or has reasonable grounds to defend or appeal the case.

He noted that the PDO sometimes deals with cases that can cause public outrage, like sexual assault, child abuse and family violence.

“But the PDO cannot refuse to handle these cases,” he said. “The test is not one of moral reprehensibility” and the PDO “has to handle the cases so long as they are assessed to have some legal merit”.

He gave the example of an appeal involving a young man who sexually abused his underage sister when he was aged 15 to 17.

After initially receiving a sentence of 18 years in jail and 16 strokes of the cane, the offender applied to the PDO for aid to appeal his sentence.

“Aid was granted as he had fulfilled the means test criteria and PDO assessed that there was merit to the appeal on the ground that the sentence given by the lower court was excessive,” said Mr Shanmugam.

The Court of Appeal agreed and reduced the young man’s jail term by two years.

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The minister stressed that provision of legal aid “cannot depend on public outrage against the alleged offender or sympathy for the victim”.

Those who pass the means and merits tests will get access to legal advice and representation to defend their case in court. “This is how we can try and ensure that access to justice is available to more,” he said.

Ms He Ting Ru (WP-Sengkang) asked about the PDO’s capacity to take on cases.

Mr Shanmugam said the PDO’s capacity depends on the number of applications, and that there is a pathway to build up capacity based on the government’s assessment of the number of cases that it will receive.

“Today, we are not beyond our capacity, and we will build up a little bit more as the caseload increases,” he said, noting the need to balance against labour shortages, including in the legal industry.

He added that the PDO has not turned down any legal aid application because it did not have the capacity to deal with it.

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