While greater access to justice is being provided for, the expansion of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) this year must be properly structured, so it does not “cannibalise” the fee-paying work of criminal lawyers, said Law Society president Thio Shen Yi.
The enhancements to the scheme — which is expected to benefit up to 6,000 accused persons annually or half of the total number of cases each year — will allow the society to scale up their delivery of criminal legal aid, said Mr Thio at the opening of the legal year yesterday.
“However, we must structure and means-test CLAS, so it doesn’t cannibalise fee-paying work of criminal lawyers,” he said. “Our target end-users are people who, but for our help, will face the criminal justice system, unrepresented, unadvised and alone.”
CLAS is run by the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office and various Community Legal Clinics. If the enhanced scheme reaches the targeted number of persons assisted within five years, it will mean a 15-fold jump in the current workload. Last year, the Law Society said honorariums, also known as a nominal allowance, and training schemes will be provided to get more volunteer lawyers to join the scheme.
Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan felt that concerns that the scheme could cannibalise the fee-paying work is an undue worry. “People who even qualify for this scheme, they are actually marginalised, the underprivileged in our society, who couldn’t ordinarily afford the so-called private lawyers to begin with,” he said.
Other initiatives by the society that will have a direct impact on the man in the street include looking at making pamphlets informing laypeople of their basic legal rights available at police stations and courts; quicker access to counsel for accused people; as well as video-taping police interviews. The Government had previously rejected the last suggestion. In 2008, then Senior Minister of State (Law and Home Affairs) Ho Peng Kee said videotaping is not a foolproof solution; one could, for example, allege a threat was made before the camera was switched on.
Yesterday, Mr Thio said video-taping police interviews has the potential to deliver a win-win result: Protection for the accused, the investigating officers and the integrity of the evidence. “In this case, both efficiency and justice are the winners.”
On disciplinary matters, Mr Thio — who noted that the number of complaints has not increased despite the rise in society membership — said the group is looking at enhancing its complaints process. It has worked with the Ministry of Law to change the law so that from this year, lawyers who are subjects of complaints must be given a copy of the complaint. Previously, lawyers would be told of the complaint, but could not obtain a copy.
“This may help lawyers explain themselves before an Inquiry Committee (IC) is empanelled and may result in fewer referrals,” Mr Thio said.