Speech by DPM Prof S Jayakumar during Committee of Supply Debate, 2 Mar 2007
2 Mar 2007 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
The thrust of what the members have said is really whether the Legal Aid Bureau / the Ministry of Law can do more. I would like to answer that straight away by saying, yes, we will endeavor to do more. We will do it in three ways: one is through adjustments to the means test; second is through giving some discretion to the Director of Legal Aid; and third is through partnership with the Law Society of Singapore. I will elaborate on each of these.
First, relating to the means test: Ms. Cynthia Phua and others have asked, whether the means test has been too harsh. The answer is really that the position is not that bad, because before we adjusted the means test in 2001, about 70% of the applicants qualified. When we adjusted the means test in 2001, some 89% - 90% of the applicants qualified. I was asked to provide figures. Last year, of the 9696 cases registered, about 89% qualify. I will say that it is only a small handful of applicants that do not qualify. After the 2001 revision, the qualifying monthly household income for a family of 4, taking into account the personal and dependant’s deductibles, increased to about $1,900 and not the $850 figure that Chairman GPC Dr. Teo Ho Pin has indicated.
But nevertheless, I have asked my officials to review last year, to see how we can do more to assist the lower income group and perhaps also some in the lower part of the middle income group who may need financial assistance or legal assistance. So what we intend to do is to try to expand the coverage of the legal aid from the current 30th percentile to the 40th percentile of households, based on household income. Now how do we intend to do this? We will first increase the personal deductible from $3,000 to $4,500 and for the dependent?s deductible, we will increase it from $2,000 to $3,500. At the same time, we will also align the disposable capital limit from $7,000 to $10,000 to match the qualifying disposable income limit. With these changes, we believe that we will be able to increase the coverage to up to the 40th percentile. And with these changes, the monthly qualifying disposable income for a family of 4 will increase from $1,900 to $2,600.
The second change we intend to do, the topic of discretion, yes we realise that even after the changes to means test, there may be some cases that do not satisfy the means test, but because of the circumstances of the case may nevertheless be deserving of help. So what we will do is for the Director of Legal Aid Bureau to be given greater discretion to offer help to those who are facing specific hardship, for example someone who may not have met the means test but suddenly has lost his job and requires urgent legal help, or someone who has sudden physical or mental incapacity.
Thirdly, we intend to establish legal clinics and this relates to the point by Dr. Teo Ho Pin on outreach. We cannot be everywhere in Singapore, but what we intend to do is to set up, on a trial basis, legal clinics which will not be providing full-fledged legal aid, but rather basic legal advice and information, where members of the public can go to as first-stops to get basic information. I have discussed this with the Mayors and they have expressed support and enthusiasm and we intend to launch a pilot project starting with say 2 legal clinics. We will discuss this further with the Mayors as to the ideal location of these clinics, at the CDCs or at the CCs. If it works out well, then we can try to expand to have more clinics.
We intend to partner the Law Society. The Law Society of Singapore has separately on its own, done a study on legal aid and pro bono work, and one of the main recommendations is for practicing lawyers to do 25 hours of pro-bono work annually. I think that the Law Society’s proposal is commendable. In fact, as I have said before, the Law Society is doing good work, not only with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, but also with the volunteers who work with the Legal Aid Bureau. I have discussed with the President of the Law Society as well as the Co-chairmen of their study team, and they have expressed support for the changes which I have outlined just now. They want to work with us and we will therefore partner the Law Society to encourage more lawyers to volunteer their pro-bono services at the Legal Aid Bureau as well as at the proposed legal clinics. We are now working out the operational aspects of such collaboration and we hope that the first clinic can be set up sometime in the second half of this year.
Some other specific questions were asked, for example, whether some of the criminal cases can be dealt with. I have explained in this house before the approach the Government takes for civil legal aid, for capital cases, and that the Law Society of Singapore handles the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. But with the clinics that we have in mind, if the member Ellen Lee is talking about minor regulatory offences, people who do not know where to turn to, I think we can consider this under the proposed legal clinics.
I was asked how long the Legal Aid Bureau would take to successfully complete the cases. It is very difficult to measure this for any particular year, because in some cases the applicant may not have given all the information and they had to come several times. It depends on whether they have given all the documentation, all the facts, and on the cooperation of the other party, if it is contested matter, and so on. But I will say that taking a divorce case in 2006, the average time taken for the Legal Aid Bureau to complete a case was about 20 months.
So on the whole, I think that the Legal Aid Bureau will take into account the points made by the members. We have these changes, and let us see how we can progress on them.
Further comment by DPM during clarification time
- On funding for legal clinics, let me assure Chairman GPC that we want to partner the CDC, and we will endeavor to limit the financial imposition on the CDC. What we would be grateful for is if we can use part of the CDC premises for the legal clinics. Other detailed aspects of the funding will be worked out later. Ministry of Law would be able to give some funding for the legal clinics and the Academy of Law is also able to assist. Basically the collaboration with the mayors and the CDCs would be in the use of a convenient location. I think it will be helpful because many people go to the CDCs for assistance on matters which may have financial and legal implications.
- On 25 hours of pro bono work, the Ministry of Law is not going to prescribe whether lawyers must do it compulsorily. It is up to the Law Society and my understanding is that the Law Society is going to exhort its members to do so. My understanding also is that these 25 hours of pro bono work can manifest itself in different ways, not necessarily only in the clinics that we have in mind. It can be in the other outfits, whether family service centers or legal clinics attached to meet-the-people sessions. I think wherever the lawyer is offering his services, it is to be welcomed. The arrangement which we hope to implement with the Law Society is that we have the legal clinics and the lawyers will assist in the two legal clinics. I think there are several thousand lawyers in Singapore, so I don’t see that this pro bono work at the legal clinics is going to siphon off the lawyers doing good work elsewhere.
- On the question if a lawyer cannot show that he has done 25 hours of pro bono work, he will not get a practicing certificate, I have to check what the intention of the President of the Law Society is, because that is their proposal which I am trying to facilitate through various ways. That question will only arise if and when pro bono work is made compulsory. Then we have to think through what the consequences of someone who does not follow the compulsory provision should be. My understanding, as of now, is that it is not compulsory, because if it is compulsory, then we may have to amend the Legal Profession Act about the practicing certificate.
- This is a topic very much in the news recently and much feedback has been received, including those voiced by the members who spoke on this. Last year, I appointed a study team to look into the en bloc sales process and the laws and they have made a number of recommendations. I have also had several sessions of discussions with the President of the Strata Titles Boards and his 3 Deputy Presidents. We have discussed and they have agreed to the recommendations of the study team which I’ll now outline.
- Basically, we have 3 areas of changes or proposals. The first concerns the method or process by which we decide on whether en bloc sale proceeds. We will retain the basic approach. The basic approach is 80% or 90% majority vote based on share values depending on age of the development, whether it is 10 years or more or less than 10 years. But in addition to the 80% or 90% of the share values, the proposal is that there must also be 80% or 90% majority vote of the total number of units in the development. In other words, share values as well as total number of units.
- For purely residential apartments, this will not be a problem because almost invariably 80% or 90% share values will also be 80% or 90% of the units.
- Why are we doing this? Because it will address a problem which is particularly felt in mixed developments, where there is unhappiness of residential unit owners in a mixed development who hold lesser share values despite owning a substantial floor area and substantial number of units. For example, in a mixed development, the residential units could be amounting to 60% of the total number of units, but they have only 20% of the share values. So, the commercial units may have 40% of the units but 80% of the share values. So the residents are outvoted. We therefore have this proposal for a majority of 80% or 90% to be also percentage majority of the total number of units.
- Secondly, we intend to give the Strata Titles Board a certain power to increase the sale proceeds in certain cases. Let me explain. This concerns the distribution of the sale proceeds.
- We will not change the basic approach for the distribution of sale proceeds. The basic approach is that the majority owners in en bloc process will still have to decide on the distribution method most suitable in their particular circumstances.
- The reason we want to give this power to the Strata Titles Board is to address situations where the Strata Titles Board considers that a minority owner may not have been treated fairly or equitably in the distribution of the proceeds although it may not be able to find any aspect of bad faith in the process.
- Let me give an example. Say a minority owner does $200,000 worth of renovation when there was no en bloc proposal in the air, and 6 months later there is an en bloc proposal that becomes successful. In fact, it means that he has “enjoyed” his renovated unit for only about 2 years before having to move out. So really he does not suffer a financial loss in the terms of the Act, but the Strata Titles Board may, if they have this discretion, increase his sale proceeds by an amount which it considers fair if they consider it fair and equitable to do so in the circumstances.
- But there will be a cap on the amount that is available to the STB to award such extra amount, and the proposed cap will be an aggregate sum of $2,000 or 0.25% of the sale proceeds from each unit, whichever is the higher. So there will be a certain sum which they can exercise the discretion.
- The third change we intend to do is for the Strata Titles Board to issue guidelines on the allowable expenditures. In other words, guidelines to improve the transparency of the process and for there to be greater openness by those who are spearheading the process. For example, the Strata Titles Board can issue guidelines on the allowable expenditure that will be taken into account in the evaluation of “financial loss” claims. This will provide more certainty to both the majority and minority owners.
- Next, if an en bloc process is initiated and if an en bloc committee is to be formed, we will provide that it should be done at an extraordinary general meeting convened by the Management Corporation. I think this will make for better accountability. It will provide for more certainty to both majority and minority owners.
- I take the point of many members, including Ms Ellen Lee, who said there may be people in the minority who for various reasons do not want to sell. We considered all this at the time when we crafted the legislation. It is not an easy issue. There may be some who want to stay there for sentimental reasons, some who have sworn to their forefathers that they will live there forever, some like the feng shui, a lot of other reasons.
- But it is not possible to craft legislation to accommodate all these views. The only perfect solution is to go back to the old system which required unanimous agreement. But we decided to move away from that when Parliament decided to have the en bloc legislation so that it will not be a unanimous requirement and a majority vote. Otherwise we will not be able to either maximise land usage or to rejuvenate developments.
- These are the changes we have in mind. I hope they address some of the points raised by members. We will do a public consultation on the proposed changes. We’ll get feedback and suggestions which we shall take into account before we finalise the amendments on en bloc sale legislation.
DPM on en bloc sale during clarification time
- On the timeframe, I am unable to give a clear date as of now because we plan to go for public consultation. It is only after the consultation when we evaluate the responses and feedback, then we’ll finalise. But we are thinking of having a timeframe whereby consultation process and evaluation will not go beyond May or June of this year.
- For an SOP, yes I’ll certainly look into this with Strata Titles Board together with the Ministry of Law. I don’t think it is a lack of knowledge of the procedures which is a problem because those committees which are spearheading any en bloc sale and the lawyers as well as the developers are fully au fait. But the point is that all those in the development that is subject to en bloc ought to be made aware. That’s very important. That’s why I mentioned guidelines will be issued, and the en bloc sale committee which I mentioned, from our viewpoint must not just include those who are pushing, or in favour of en bloc, it must also include those who have a different view on the en bloc sale proposal.
- On the use of CPF monies, I hope members will bear with me if I do not go into details on this because I am aware today that there is an appeal which has been brought in the case of the Waterfront case. So, it is a matter before the court.
- But I think it will not be out of place for me to say that my understanding of the position is that monies drawn out of the CPF account to pay for the principal sum of the purchase, has always been included. What the issue I believe is the interest payment on the bank loan or interest forgone should also be calculated when computing financial loss. But I think it is better that I do not pronounce on this while the appeal is before the court.
Age of Majority
- The age of majority in Singapore is actually not defined by statute. It is defined by common law which sets it at 21 years.
- Let me explain the legislative approach that we have taken in Singapore. We have in our body of laws different laws to prescribe different ages for qualifications or requirements or disqualifications for a whole host of different contexts, purposes and status or objectives, whether it is for driving licence or for voting in elections. This is because each activity calls for different considerations.
- For example the law provides for age of 21 for qualification of membership of Parliament, for entering certain professions to be lawyers, public accountants, engineers, or to be a guarantor or to marry without parent’s consent or to make a valid will. Those are some examples for the age of 21.
- Then we have laws that prescribe the age of 18 to get driving licence, to buy cigarettes or alcohol, and so on.
- The point I want to make is there is no single threshold age for all purposes. I guess it is because you cannot say that adulthood is gained overnight on a fixed birthday, whether it is 21 or earlier. Rather, it is attained through a gradual process.
- So the approach that our laws have is a pragmatic one where there is a gradual increase in rights and responsibilities leading up to the age of 21, at which stage nearly all the limitations linked to age are removed.
- But this does not mean that everything is cast in stone and no aspect of this variegated approach will be ever reviewed. Whilst we have no immediate plans to reduce the age of majority, we are currently reviewing the matter for some specific areas impacting on our drive for example to create greater entrepreneurial skills and a risk-taking approach, especially for the young. For example, the Government is looking into whether those who are at least 18 years of age can more freely enter into contracts. But that’s just an example.
- Voting age? We do not intend to change that. Voting in Parliamentary elections or voting in elections for the Presidency is a very serious matter. It is a decision where voters choose their MPs, and choose in turn which political party or parties form the Government to look after and run the country. In the case of elections for Elected President, voters will be deciding on which individual they will entrust to hold the office of President to exercise the custodial powers and veto powers set out in the Constitution.
- If we set the age below 21, many would still be studying and, in the case of males, they would still be doing National Service. Or they would have just started work.
- The current age of 21 means that the voter would have finished National Service and many others would have had some working experience. I think they would then be in a better position to make careful assessments, considered judgements about the quality of the candidates and of the other many national issues involved when it comes to forming their judgement and choice involved in casting vote.
- Our model of elections and Government has worked well and I see no pressing reasons to change it, including the age of voting.
- Yes, I note the experience in other countries pointed out by Sylvia Lim. The practice varies and there are also examples of other countries which have kept to a higher age; Malaysia retains the age of 21, Japan has the age at 20.
Last updated on 25 Nov 2012