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    Feb 29, 2016

    More get criminal legal aid with govt funding

    MORE accused people who cannot afford lawyers are receiving help, after the Government stepped in to fund a legal aid programme.

    This year, the Law Society hopes to expand coverage for more offences under the programme, called Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), and run by its Pro Bono Services Office.

    Latest statistics from the Ministry of Law show that 2,433 people were helped under the enhanced scheme last year - more than five times the number in 2014.

    Of these, 1,109 received basic legal advice while 1,324 got help such as written mitigation pleas and full legal representation for those claiming trial. Before the official launch of the enhanced scheme in May last year, only full representation in court was offered.

    Only 431 people were given help in 2014 and 427 in 2013.

    In May last year, the Government pledged up to $3.5 million a year for the scheme, to help cover operational costs, token fees for volunteer lawyers and other disbursements.

    In the past, the State had steered clear of providing criminal legal aid, as it would mean using public funds both to prosecute and defend the same people.

    The ministry added that close to a million Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) may meet the disposable income threshold for legal aid, under the Legal Aid and Advice Act amended in 2013.

    In Parliament last month, Senior Minister of State for Law Indranee Rajah said 25 per cent of Singaporeans and PRs now qualify for legal aid, up from 17 per cent before.

    A spokesman for the Law Society said: "More needy persons are being assisted now... As a result, the society has had to actively recruit more volunteers, and has received written commitments from law firms to take on pro bono cases and support the Clas Fellowship programme."

    Under the fellowship programme, lawyers are hired by the Law Society or seconded by their law firms to do criminal legal aid work full-time.

    Managing director Abraham Vergis of Providence Law Asia said a "serious challenge" is getting enough lawyers and firms to volunteer their services for Clas.

    "The token honorarium that is now being offered to lawyers will hopefully enable more lawyers to take on a greater number of cases but this alone may not be enough," he added.