The case of Parti Liyani has sparked much debate on the state of Singapore’s criminal justice system and the enhancements that can be made to improve underprivileged groups’ access to the system.
One of such changes is the possibility of setting up a Public Defenders’ Office to serve lower-income accused persons in criminal cases in Singapore.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam told Parliament on 4 November that the suggestion is currently being considered in the Government’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) review.
He noted that while the Law Ministry leans towards implementing the proposal, state expenditure will be a significant issue to consider, as the Government will foot the bill and employ lawyers in a separate structure to defend such accused persons.
“How many officers, how big, how much — [these] are conversations we have to have with the Ministry of Finance (MOF), among others.
“But in principle, we have to first discuss it with the profession, and then talk to MOF and deal with the issue,” Mr Shanmugam told the House in response to fellow Nee Soon GRC MP Carrie Tan’s question on whether the Government will put in place such a scheme.
Currently, 75 per cent of CLAS’ operating costs are funded by the Government, while the rest is supported by the Law Society and private donations.
Citing the fully-government funded criminal legal aid scheme in England and Wales comprising two schemes — a public defender one with its own government lawyers and a legal aid one that relies on outsourcing cases to private lawyers — Mr Shanmugam said that such a scheme has garnered widespread debate among the public over matters such as government cost and abuse of such legal aid on the part of those who sought it.
“Around 50 defendants with more than S$1.76 million in illegally obtained assets were found to have received legal aid in 2012,” he said.
Noting that Ms Parti’s legal cost would have been around S$150,000 if it was not for defence counsel Anil Balchandani who took up her case on a pro bono basis, Mr Shanmugam said that taxpayers would have had to pay that amount.
The Workers’ Party chair Sylvia Lim, however, highlighted the disparity between unrepresented accused persons — often due to not being able to afford a lawyer — and prosecutors who are state-funded “with deep resources” when presenting their case before judges.
“These unrepresented persons do not know what to do when prosecutors submit bundles of legal authorities to persuade judges to convict or to fix a sentence.
“Because of their lack of legal knowledge, some of them inadvertently irritate judges, because they say things which are not legally relevant, or come across as disrespectful or even under-dressed,” she told Parliament in her speech on the motion she filed on Singapore’s criminal justice system.
While some legal aid is available to lower-income accused persons provided that they “satisfy a test of means and qualify for the schemes”, Ms Lim highlighted the issue of pre-trial liberty and bail, whereby “the majority of persons considered suitable for release before trial remained locked up”.
“In a 2005 study by an Assistant Registrar of the Supreme Court, she found that in 2004, out of all accused persons offered bail by the Subordinate Courts, only 42.7 per cent were bailed out.
“Ms Parti Liyani was fortunate that the NGO Home helped find her a bailor, but many accused persons cannot find bailors of sufficient means,” she said.
Ms Lim stressed that pre-trial detention may make it “much harder” for accused persons “to consult with any lawyer or witness to prepare one’s defence”.
She added that the police and the Courts “can release a suspect either on bail or on his personal bond” under the Criminal Procedure Code to secure the accused’s attendance in court.
The “heavy reliance” on money bail, however, “has disproportionate effects on the poor”, said Ms Lim.
“I have come across residents living in HDB rental flats who had bail set at above S$10,000 for numerous charges of non-violent, regulatory offences like parking and ERP violations.
“This may sound surprising, as many of us consider such offence notices as easily settled through prompt payment of composition fines. But this is not so for those who have insufficient funds to pay and have to attend Court. The entire household can be derailed by such problems,” she stressed.
Ms Lim also noted that statistics on bail “are not readily tracked by the government”.
Referencing past Parliamentary questions filed by MPs including herself on the outcomes of the Bail Court, Ms Lim said that Mr Shanmugam said the court had reduced or varied the terms of bail for 30 per cent of the cases referred to it.
The Bail Court, she said, was established in 2007 to achieve “consistency in bail decisions, and where possible, to reduce bail amounts, reduce time spent in remand and ensure that review applications were dealt with expeditiously”.
“Today, it seems that the Bail Court is not heard of. Has it been discontinued, and, if so, why?” Ms Lim questioned.
Given the above account by Ms Lim, even if the Government does prevent or limit the spending of taxpayers’ money on providing legal representation services for low-income accused persons, the State is nevertheless spending money to prosecute individuals who may be innocent of crimes they have been charged with.
To cite an example at hand, Ms Parti would have been found guilty even if she claimed trial, had it not been for Mr Anil’s pro bono services and for her decision to consider appealing to the High Court where she was ultimately found innocent of the charges made against her.
Wouldn’t greater spending for the purpose of providing legal representation services to lower-income accused persons spark consideration by the prosecutors on which cases to embark on?
Further, in Ms Parti’s case, would it not be difficult to assume that the Attorney-General’s Chambers went on to charge her — despite the nature of the evidence at hand — based on the high possibility of securing her conviction, due to her financial status that would have otherwise prevented her from securing legal representation?