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SINGAPORE – The newly minted Public Defender’s Office (PDO), which assigns criminal defence lawyers for low-income Singaporeans and permanent residents, has taken on 303 cases since its inception in December 2022 till September.

The department under the Ministry of Law (MinLaw), which is funded by taxpayers, employs full-time lawyers for needy persons charged with non-capital offences.

With the PDO, the annual case load of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas) in 2023 is expected to be lower than in 2022.

These updates were revealed by Minister for Law K. Shanmugam on Tuesday in Parliament when he responded to questions filed by Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) and Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC) about the PDO.

Clas is run by registered charity Pro Bono SG and its cases are mainly taken by volunteer lawyers.

MinLaw had previously said cases assessed to be urgent, such as remand cases where the applicant’s likely sentence would be less than the remand period, or cases involving minors under 21 years old, will be represented by a public defender.

Other eligible cases will be shared between the PDO and Clas. The latter continues to serve needy persons who are not Singaporeans or permanent residents, a group not covered by the PDO.

Mr Shanmugam, who is also the Minister for Home Affairs, said some applicants for criminal defence aid face minor charges of shop theft and mischief, while others face more serious offences of drug trafficking or sexual assault.

Mr Murali asked how PDO deals with cases involving alleged crimes that may be viewed by the public as being morally repugnant. Mr Shanmugam said each application goes through means and merits tests.

The means test evaluates an applicant’s economic situation. The PDO covers applicants up to the 35th income percentile, up from the 25th percentile covered by Clas.

The merits test assesses whether there are reasonable grounds to defend or appeal the applicant’s case in court, or if he would benefit from legal representation.

Mr Shanmugam said the assessment on whether to provide legal aid is not based on the nature of the alleged offences or the moral reprehensibility of the applicant.

He added: “Sometimes, (the) PDO comes across cases which many would consider to be highly reprehensible. They can relate to sexual assault, child abuse, family violence, and the nature of the crime can cause public outrage, public concern.

“But the PDO cannot refuse to handle these cases… It has to handle the cases so long as they are assessed to have some legal merit.”

He cited the example of a man who had sexually penetrated his younger sister when he was between 15 and 17 years old. The man was initially sentenced to 18 years’ jail with 16 strokes of the cane, and he wanted to appeal.

The PDO took his case as he had fulfilled the means test, and the PDO assessed there was merit to the appeal because the sentence was excessive. The man’s sentence was reduced by two years.

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