Oral Answer by Minister for Law K Shanmugam to PQs on the Public Defender's Office
07 Nov 2023 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
Question for Oral Answer
Mr Murali Pillai (Member of Parliament for Bukit Batok SMC): To ask the Minister for Law (a) whether an update can be provided on the cases undertaken by the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) since it commenced operations on 1 December 2022; and (b) how does the PDO deal with cases involving alleged crimes that may be viewed by the public as being morally repugnant in assessing whether to provide legal aid.
Question for Written Answer
Ms He Ting Ru (Member of Parliament for Sengkang GRC): To ask the Minister for Law what is the impact of the launch of the Public Defender’s Office on the number of cases taken up by the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.
- Mr Speaker, Sir, my reply will also address Written Question No. 10 for today’s sitting.
- The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) was set up in December 2022. So we are now about 12 months into it. It is to provide criminal defence aid to persons facing non-capital charges, and who cannot afford a lawyer.
- As of September 2023, the PDO has taken up 303 cases from applicants and has taken it to Court. Eligible applicants receive representation from either the PDO or the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). With this co-delivery model, CLAS’s annual case load in 2023 is expected to be lower than 2022. But nonetheless, this has been only 9-10 months and we have to continue to monitor the situation.
- Some of the applicants for criminal defence aid face charges for minor offences such as shop theft, mischief, and so on. But some others face more serious non-capital charges - unlicensed moneylending, drug trafficking, sexual assault against vulnerable victims, and so on. Now, we have to ensure that aid is rendered to those who are deserving, and each application for criminal defence aid is subjected to means and merits tests. Means test in terms of economic means, and merits test in terms of some basis for defence. These assessments are not based on the nature of the alleged offences or the moral reprehensibility of the applicant. The means test, as I said earlier, is to ensure that aid is given to those who are unable to afford legal fees. The merits test assesses whether the applicant will benefit from legal representation or has reasonable grounds to defend or appeal his case in Court.
- Sometimes PDO comes across cases which many would consider to be highly reprehensible. That can relate to sexual assault, child abuse or family violence. The nature of the crime can cause public outrage, public concern. But the PDO cannot refuse to handle these cases. That is not the test. The test is not one of moral reprehensibility. The test is whether the person qualifies under the means test and merits test. It has to handle the cases, as long as they are assessed to have some legal merit. One example is a recent Court of Appeal matter involving an accused person who pleaded guilty to sexually penetrating his own younger sister - I think almost all right-thinking members of society would say this is completely unacceptable, reprehensible. He had committed the offences when he was between the age of 15 and 17 years. He was initially sentenced to 18 years in prison and 16 strokes of the cane. He applied to PDO for aid to appeal against 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. The Court of Appeal agreed and his sentence was reduced by 2 years.
- This scenario sometimes arises in other jurisdictions as well. You have a case of PC Andrew Harper in the United Kingdom, a uniformed officer gave chase to a group of teenagers who were trying to escape after stealing a bike. He was dragged by the car which was driven by one of the teenagers and he died. There was widespread public sympathy for him, and outrage over the fact that he died. The three teenagers received legal aid. The Court found them guilty of manslaughter instead of murder.
- In another case in New Zealand, a family of five was mass murdered and David Bain, who was the only survivor, was accused of murder. There were mixed views over his innocence, and this case has been described as “the most widely discussed and divisive in New Zealand’s criminal history”. After 13 years, he was acquitted of all charges. Without legal aid, he may have remained behind bars until today.
- As I explained in my Ministerial Statement in April last year, the provision of legal aid cannot depend on public outrage against the alleged offender or sympathy for the victim.
- With the PDO, we will assess each case based on its own merit and those who have a meritorious case but cannot afford a lawyer will be provided access to legal advice and representation to defend their case in court. This is how we can ensure that access to justice is available to more.
Last updated on 7 November 2023