1 Oct 2018 Posted in Press releases
The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) tabled the Legal Aid and Advice (Amendment) Bill for First Reading in Parliament today. The Bill amends the Legal Aid and Advice Act (LAAA), first, to simplify the means test for legal aid; second, to provide greater flexibility for aid to be given to those who fail the means test but have extenuating circumstances; and third, to improve the administration of legal aid. These amendments will help strengthen access to justice.
Civil legal aid is administered by the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB), a department under MinLaw. Set up in 1958, LAB celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year. Since 1958, LAB has received about 400,000 applications for legal aid. In 2017, LAB received about 9,000 applications; most were for matrimonial, claims and probate matters.
Simplifying the Means Test for Legal Aid
- Civil legal aid is given to Singaporeans of limited means who have reasonable grounds for taking up, continuing, or defending a court action, but cannot afford a lawyer. Currently, applicants for civil legal aid must satisfy a means test based on the applicant’s disposable income and disposable capital:
- Disposable income is the income of the applicant together with the income (if any) of the applicant’s spouse for the 12 months immediately preceding the date of the application, after deducting:
- $6,000 for the applicant;
- $6,000 from the income of the applicant’s spouse;
- An amount not exceeding $6,000 for the maintenance of each dependant of the applicant or the applicant’s spouse;
- An amount not exceeding $20,000 for rent;
- An amount equal to the applicant’s contributions to the Central Provident Fund (CPF) during that period; and
- An amount equal to the contributions of the applicant’s spouse to the CPF during that period.
- Disposable capital is the property which an applicant is possessed of or to which he is entitled to, excluding:
- The subject-matter of the proceeding;
- The wearing apparel of the applicant;
- The tools of trade of the applicant;
- Household furniture used by the applicant in his house;
- A dwelling-house with an annual value of up to $13,000, or a Housing and Development Board flat, that is owned and exclusively used by the applicant and his family as their home;
- Savings of the applicant of up to $30,000, if he is aged 60 and above;
- Moneys standing to the credit of the applicant’s account in the CPF; and
- The total surrender value of one or more life policies held by the applicant, up to the amount of $46,000
- Applicants are required to provide documentary proof of these items, as part of the legal aid application. LAB has used disposable income and disposable capital to assess means since 1958 when the original LAAA came into force.
- MinLaw has reviewed the means criteria, to update and simplify the criteria, and to align them with means criteria more commonly used in current social support schemes. The Bill gives the Ministry the flexibility to establish new means criteria to be set out in the subsidiary legislation. MinLaw intends to adopt Per Capita Household Income (PCHI) and the Annual Value (AV) of the applicant’s place of residence, savings, and investments as the new criteria to replace the current disposable income and disposable capital criteria.
- The new means criteria will simplify and shorten the application process for legal aid. Applicants no longer need to provide proof of certain specific categories of income, assets, and expenditure such as the surrender value of life policies. The qualifying limit for the new means criteria will be set later in subsidiary legislation, after taking into account the latest income data. It will be set such that there will be no material impact on the number of households who are eligible for legal aid.
Providing Greater Flexibility to Give Legal Aid
- Currently, the Director of Legal Aid has the discretion under the LAAA to grant aid to those who fail the means test under four specific circumstances defined in the Act:
- Applicant living separate and apart from spouse: The Director may disregard the income of the applicant’s spouse (introduced in 1958);
- Sudden physical or mental disability: The Director may grant the applicant a deduction of $2,000 when computing his disposable income, and up to $30,000 in savings when computing his disposable capital (introduced in 2007);
- Sudden loss of income: The Director may assess the applicant’s income over a period of 6 months (instead of 12 months) (introduced in 2007); and
- Family proceedings involving children or protection orders between spouses/ ex-spouses: The Director may exclude a private property with an annual value of up to $20,000 (instead of $13,000) and an additional deduction of $5,000 when computing the applicant’s disposable capital (introduced in 2013).
- The Director has no discretion to provide aid to other applicants who fail the means test and do not satisfy any of these four circumstances.
- The Bill provides for Minister to grant aid to applicants who do not satisfy the means criteria, if he is of the opinion that it is just and proper to do so. The Minister may authorise any person, including a panel of persons, to exercise this power.
- This change provides greater flexibility for LAB to help those who fail the means test but have extenuating circumstances. For example, LAB currently cannot help an applicant who fail the means test but cannot afford legal services because he has a serious illness and has to pay for major medical procedures. The change gives LAB the flexibility to give aid to such an applicant.
Improving the Administration of Legal Aid
- The Bill will also make other miscellaneous amendments to improve the administration of legal aid, including:
- Providing for the Director of Legal Aid to grant aid for certain proceedings, without referring the matter to the Legal Aid Board. We will apply this to straightforward cases, such as uncontested cases where parties have agreed on all matters. This will streamline the process and shorten the time needed for straightforward cases;
- Allowing public officers who have been appointed by the Director of Legal to provide legal advice, and to appear and plead in the Courts. These public officers are Specialist Legal Executives in LAB who have undergone rigorous training and assessment; and
- Clarifying that legally aided persons may be entitled to additional court documents free of charge. These may include the Grounds of Decision and its certified transcripts associated with the case. Currently, they may only obtain a copy of the judge’s notes of evidence free of charge.
Last updated on 01 Oct 2018