Tuesday, 26 September 2023

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Easier to get Legal Aid?

By Leong Sze Hian

I refer to the article “More to benefit from legal aid services” (Today, Jul 1).

300,000 more qualify for Legal Aid?

It states that “Another 300,000 Singaporeans and permanent residents will potentially benefit from amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act, which take effect today.

The Legal Aid Bureau (LAB), a department under the Ministry of Law, administers legal aid, and the ministry said the extension of aid to more people would enable greater access to justice for those who need basic legal services but cannot afford it.

To be eligible, applicants must pass both a means test and a merits test.

Under the means test previously, an applicant’s annual disposable income and disposable capital cannot exceed S$10,000.

With the expansion of existing deductibles and creation of new ones for the income and capital criteria, more people will now be covered.

Under the merits test, the Legal Aid Board will assess whether the applicant’s case has merit from the legal perspective.”

How easy to qualify?

I was curious as to how easy (or difficult) it may be now to qualify for legal aid. So, I visited the Legal Aid Bureau’s web site.

The LAB’s press release has a table which shows examples of Singaporeans who would qualify for legal aid, before and after the subject amendment effective 1 July.

Single annual gross income over $20,000 don’t qualify?

For example. a single Singaporean or PR with annual gross income not above $20,000 would qualify for legal aid because his or her disposable income of $10,000 (after deducting employee’s 20 % CPF contribution, personal relief of $4,500 and 0 for rental relief as staying in own property) would just pass the means test hurdle of $10,000.

Against the above, before the amendment, he or she would need to earn not above $18,125 (compared to $20,000 now – $1,875 more allowed a year – a big deal!) to qualify.

Family of 3 over $35,000 don’t qualify?

Let’s look at another example of a family with one child. The income criteria in this example has now been raised from $26,875 to $35,000.

Can afford to engage lawyer?

So, the $64,000 question may be – can a single person with net annual income (after 20 % employee CPF contribution) of $16,000 or a family of 3 with $28,000 income (in this example) afford to pay to engage a lawyer?

Poor enough to qualify for GST, but not legal aid?

Is it not somewhat ironic, that a person earning $20,000 (GST voucher eligibility is not more than $24,000 annual income) or a couple earning $35,000 are deemed to be “lower-income” enough to likely qualify for the GST offset voucher scheme, but too well off to qualify for legal aid?

Next – pass disposable capital test?

OK – Let’s say you managed to pass the income test – your next hurdle is the disposable capital test.

“Only persons with a disposable income of not more than S$10,000 per year and a disposable capital of not more than S$10,000 may be granted legal aid.”

“Disposable capital is the property which the applicant possesses or is entitled to, such as, money in hand or in banks, shares or vehicles, after excluding the applicable categories of property under the Act, such as HDB flat, CPF moneys, etc.”

(Note: the current property annual assessed value (AV) threshold of $13,000 would mean that almost all private property owners won’t qualify, and now up to $46,000 of the surrender value of life insurance policies and CPF investments (just amended from 1 July) and your savings of up to S$30,000 if you are aged 60 years and above are also exempted)

Next – pass merits test?

So, let’s say you managed to pass both the income and disposable capital tests. Your next hurdle is –

“The merits test is assessed by the Legal Aid Board on whether the applicant has reasonable grounds for seeking legal aid”

Co-payment also?

With regard to “To foster greater self-ownership of legal aid cases, applicants will have to pay a contribution to the Legal Aid Bureau. The quantum payable will be based on their financial means and the extent of work done by the bureau” – Does it mean that applicants may in a sense be worse off after the subject amendment, because of the co-payment?

Greater access to justice?

In the final analysis, to what extent will the subject amendment – “would give people who need but cannot afford basic legal service greater access to justice”? (“Changes to legal aid rules from today”, Straits Times, Jul 1)

90 % success rate?

As to “Annually, there are around 10,000 applicants, with about 90 per cent succeeding” – does this statistic exclude those who may be told that they do not even have to apply because they clearly fail the means test?

More statistics please?

How many who pass the means test end up failing the merits test?

Or is it such that most cases that clearly will fail the merits test, will not even be tested for the means test?

What percentage of those who go to the LAB are told that their issue may clearly fail the merits test and thus do not need to go through the means test?

I wonder how many who fail the merits test, may be able to get a lawyer to proceed if they can afford one – and thus let the legal system and the courts decide on the merits of their case?

Try the means test indicator?

By the way, if you have insomnia, you may like to try the means test indicator – just in case!


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