Speech by Senior Minister of State Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee during the Committee of Supply Debate
27 Feb 2008 Posted in Speeches
- Dr Teo Ho Pin, Mr Michael Palmer and Mr Masagos Zulkifli’s cuts generally involve the issue of “access to justice”. It is to facilitate access to justice that we continually review the legal aids means test and established the Community Legal Clinics (CLCs) and Community Mediation Centres (CMCs).
Legal Aid Bureau
Revisions to Legal Aid Means Test made last year
- The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) keeps a close watch on the means test to ensure adequate access to justice to those of limited means. That is why we have amended the test several times, the last one only being in July last year. Arising from this amendment, an applicant with say a dependent wife and 2 children will now qualify for legal aid if he earns less than $2,600 a month. Before the revision, he had to earn less than $1,900.
More Discretion Given to Director of Legal Aid
- Last July, we also gave the Director of Legal Aid greater discretion to help special cases who fail the expanded means test but were deserving of legal aid. Mr Palmer asks under what circumstances? As an example, if a person suffers hardship because he suddenly loses his job and requires urgent legal help, the Director now has the option to consider his income for the preceding 6 months, instead of the past one year. Another example is when a person is afflicted with a sudden physical or mental incapacity.
- Mr Palmer suggests that we should apply a different means test for different types of cases. Madam, the means test is a measure of whether a person is in a financial position to obtain legal help on his own. It would not be right to draw a distinction between the different types of action he is faced with. Otherwise, we may end up in an incongruous situation where a person who seeks legal aid for different types of actions, such as a divorce and a commercial claim where he is the defendant, will be provided legal aid for the divorce but not the claim, when he actually requires help for both. To him, both actions may be “unavoidable”. This would be difficult for the person seeking legal aid to understand, let alone accept.
- Doing so also mean that we are giving priority to certain types of cases, deeming them as more deserving of help. This is hard to justify. The principle ought to be to ensure that there is access to justice to deserving individuals, based on the means test and the merits test, regardless of the nature of their case. We see no compelling reasons to move away from this approach which has served us well all these years.
- Mr Palmer mentions the high cost of divorce cases. The Subordinate Courts have actually responded to this by setting up a Family Relations Chambers in 2006 to help estranged couples, at no cost, to resolve their disputes in a non-adversarial setting. The resolution rate at 88% has been encouraging. This process helps the parties to arrive at a global resolution of the divorce and ancillary matters. When they go for Uncontested Divorces before the Family Court, I believe that party to party costs are capped between $1,500 to $1,800, thus making it more affordable.
Community Legal Clinics
- Let me now touch on the CLCs. To provide greater access to justice and inform Singaporeans what the law is, we now have CLCs. At last year’s COS, we announced that we would launch two Community Legal Clinics to provide an avenue for members of the public to obtain basic legal advice. In September, two such Clinics started operating at NorthWest and SouthEast CDCs. MinLaw is happy to partner the Law Society, Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) and the CDCs in this outreach. I thank Mayor Teo and Mayor Yao for their support.
Progress of the CLCs
- The Clinics are doing well. Public response has been good. Over the past 5 months, volunteer lawyers at the clinics have helped more than 850 people.
- As for the profile of cases handled at the CLCs, matters include Claims and Personal Loans, Family matters such as Divorce and Separation, as well as Employment matters. Mr Palmer notes that lawyers at the CLCs can only advise the people they see but cannot represent them in Court. This is why the CLCs have established a system where they will inform parties whom they think are eligible for legal aid about what is available at the LAB and help them to file their claims. In addition, some are referred to the Family Service Centres or the Law Society for follow-up action.
- I must say the response from the law firms has been good. 17 of the largest firms have come on board. Altogether about 200 lawyers, including some Senior Counsel are doing this, including some from Mr Michael Palmer’s firm and also firms of other members who are here, and also involving some of the students from SMU and NUS.
- Dr Teo asks about the Ministry’s plans to expand the CLC programme to cater especially for heartlanders. In fact, the two CLCs are already reaching out to all Singaporeans where they live. Users come not just from the two CDCs involved but I believe that 60% of the users actually come from the rest of Singapore. We will continue to monitor the situation and expand if the need arises.
- I agree with Dr Teo that there is a need for the public to know more about the law. Well this is being done through the CLCs. When they come, they are also informed of their rights, the law and their obligations but I think more can be done and I believe more is being done, both by the Government as well as by private sector bodies. So for example, the Law Society has been actively organising a bi-annual Law Awareness Week. This is very good on the ground and reaches out to Singaporeans. And last year’s topics were very topical: gambling, consumer credit, family charter and employment. DPM and I have been helping them when we can either with advice or with our presence at these functions. And books are also available: “You & the Law” by Singapore Association of Women Lawyers. The Consumer Association of Singapore (CASE) has also put out information put on their web-site.
- I agree however that more can be done. Indeed, especially the more vulnerable Singaporeans should be apprised of what they can do, where they can turn to, should they need help.
Effectiveness of Community Mediation Centres
- On CMCs which Mr Masagos talks about, MinLaw set these up about 10 years ago to promote community mediation as a flexible, cost effective and a conciliatory means for Singaporeans to resolve social, community and family conflicts, outside the adversarial court system, thereby also avoiding legal costs. So CMCs, CLCs, the Small Claims Tribunal- all these form a matrix of measures put in place so that those who need legal help, short of going to the Court, at least there are other processes where they can turn to first, which are cost effective. And I am happy to say that largely, the CMC has achieved this role.
Effectiveness of Community Mediation Efforts
- How effective is it? 10 years on, the CMC has dealt with more than 3,400 community disputes, with an overall success rate of 75 percent. It handled 534 cases last year, compared to 120 in 1998 when it first started. As importantly, in terms of effectiveness, it?s not just the cases that are settled, getting the parties to talk about it face to face, I think that is also a measure of effectiveness because it helps parties to understand each other better.
Whether there is a need to amend law to compel attendance and compliance to agreement
- Well, is there a need to amend the law to compel attendance and ensure compliance with mediated agreements?
- In fact, we have been studying this issue carefully and essentially, it is a question of how far, as a matter of policy, the State should be involved in getting Singaporeans to resolve their social and community conflicts through mediation.
- Our current approach is to distinguish between cases that have escalated to the courts and those which have not. In the first situation, the courts can require the parties to go for mediation. For cases that have not reached the courts, we keep mediation voluntary rather than make it mandatory from the outset. To complement this, we have strengthened the voluntary framework to ensure that more cases are appropriately channelled to mediation, for example, through advice given by the Police or by having grassroots leaders, under a Persuaders’ Scheme, to visit the parties to encourage them to go for mediation. I will consider Mr Masagos’ suggestion to involve these grassroots leaders also in helping the parties keep the peace pursuant to the mediated agreements.
- Now, the question is: should we make mediation mandatory once an application has been filed at the CMC? So, its pre-Court. Well, like I’ve said, mediation is essentially a voluntary process. But having thought about it, I am prepared to consider the option of introducing some pressure on the party who is invited to attend a mediation session by the CMC. We will explore the possibility of, for example, inserting a provision that allows a Magistrate to take cognisance of a party’s earlier refusal to attend mediation at the CMC as a factor in assessing the reasonableness of the parties’ actions and in determining how to deal with the Complaint, should a Magistrate’s Complaint be lodged subsequently. This may incentivize the parties to at least come for mediation, giving the process a boost.
Enforceability of Mediated Settlements
- On whether there is a need to amend the law to strengthen compliance by parties to their mediated agreements, I do not think this is necessary. A settlement arrived at by the parties at a CMC mediation session are already binding on them and enforceable in civil courts as a contractual agreement if it is written down, signed by all the parties, and the document itself contains a statement specifying its binding nature.
Review of Criminal Procedure Code
- Now, to the next series of cuts. Every country has to find the right balance in its criminal procedures and investigation processes between enhancing the public interest in solving crimes expeditiously and protecting the rights of the accused person. This is especially so in the realm of criminal law which reflects society’s norms. So, to Dr Teo Ho Pin who asks how our Criminal Procedure Code or “CPC” compares with other jurisdiction in terms of transparency and protection of individual rights, my response is that, on the whole, our criminal laws and processes have worked well for us.
- This is why Singapore scores highly in international polls for “legal framework” and “safety and security”. Singaporeans also have confidence in our Courts, Prosecution and Enforcement agencies.
- Even though our system is generally working well, as in all things, we fine tune its features, where necessary. This is why, for the first time in 40 years, the CPC is undergoing a comprehensive review. Dr Teo and Mr Christopher De Souza asked how the review is coming along. We are targeting to move the amending Bill in Parliament later this year. Areas reviewed include matters such as the pre-trial discovery process, bail procedures, composition of offences, the jurisdiction of the courts and powers of the appellate courts. As the CPC is an important piece of legislation with more than 400 sections, we want to be as thorough as possible in reviewing it.
- I assure Mr De Souza that just as we gave a lot of thought and resources to the Penal Code amendments, we are giving much thought too to the CPC amendments. He is right that a good Penal Code needs a good procedure framework to back it up. When the amendments are ready, we will consult key stakeholders such as the Law Society and the Courts and we will also consult the GPC.
- I will now address the specific points made by Members.
- Dr Teo, Mr Alvin Yeo and Ms Sylvia Lim refer to the pre-trial discovery process. Actually, as lawyers know, there are already existing procedures to facilitate disclosure.
- But we intend to refine the process. We are still finalizing the details, but generally, we are looking at formalizing a statutory framework where the prosecution will formally inform the defence of its case against the accused person. For now, our thinking is that this will include matters such as the list of witnesses, a list of exhibits relevant to the facts in support of the charge and the accused person’s statements to be adduced by the prosecution, amongst other things. Then, as per current practice, there will be mutual disclosure as the defence will be required to indicate, amongst other things, its challenges to the prosecution’s case. Thereafter, the prosecution will serve on the defence all relevant statements made by the accused person. This process will facilitate the crystallisation of the material issues before the trial commences. I believe that this statutory framework will inject greater transparency into the process to improve it.
Access to Counsel
- Now on the point of access to counsel, Mr Yeo argues that accused persons should have earlier access to counsel. We have debated this issue in this House before.
- Currently, the CPC already provides a safeguard because it requires every accused person to be brought before a Magistrate without unreasonable delay and, in any event, within 48 hours of his arrest. If Police wants to remand an accused person longer than 48 hours, it has to make out a case to the Court which will make a ruling based on the information and facts before it.
- Police applies the guiding principle that an accused person should be allowed to consult counsel within a reasonable time and as soon as practicable. Further, there is in place a robust monitoring system to ensure that investigations are completed expeditiously so that remand would not be applied for unnecessarily.
- Police has conducted a study that show that more than 90% of the persons arrested were released within 48 hours of arrest, and would have been able to consult legal counsel thereafter. So in fact, the vast majority of arrested persons have early access to legal counsel as only 1% of such persons arrested were remanded beyond a week, well within Mr Yeo’s 1-2 weeks timeframe. This 1% of persons remanded beyond a week include more complex cases such as murder which require extensive investigations. Let me assure the House that Police only applies for remand when absolutely necessary. Indeed, there have been instances when Police applied to the Court for accused persons to be brought back to the Court for an earlier mention date when investigations were completed before the end of the remand period.
- Mr Yeo mentions remanding an accused person for months without access to counsel. I think he said this so that I can correct the misperception, held perhaps by laymen on the ground. Because this is not the case. Remand for the purposes of investigation is not equivalent to keeping the accused in custody. An accused person may be in prison for a period before trial due to other reasons such as the failure to furnish bail, or he may be in remand for psychiatric examination at IMH. Under these circumstances, I would expect that he would have access to counsel already.
- Heeding calls for Police to grant earlier access to counsel, Police initiated a pilot in March 2006, to refine its internal processes. In August last year, a procedure was then formalised where remanded accused persons can meet their lawyers earlier, i.e. towards the end of the 1-week remand period, on condition that the accused person did not discuss the case with his lawyer. This approach strikes a balance between allowing the counsel an opportunity to meet his client, and upholding the principle that there should be no interference with police investigations. The Law Society has also been informed of this formalised process. The point, therefore, is that Police has moved on this.
Recording of Statements
- Now for the next topic on recording of an accused person’s statements, Ms Sylvia Lim advocates allowing video and audio recording of police interviews of suspect persons.
- First of all, I reiterate my point that especially for criminal procedures and processes, you must find your own path to strike the right balance between protection of the public interests and the rights of accused persons. So what may work in US, I am sure many Singaporeans will say please do not import it here. And also in other countries, video taping has been introduced for different reasons, one of which is loss in public confidence in the police. In UK, there were the Birmingham 6 and Guildford 4 cases which led to the introduction of video taping. So too in Australia, Justice Woods’ Commission of Inquiry in New South Wales.
- The reason often cited for video-recording of police interviews is to guard against Police abuse. A key point, however, is that video or tape-recording the interview is not a foolproof solution if the concern is that confessions made by accused persons may not be voluntary. This is because he can allege that the threat was made, or that the inducement or promise was held out to him before the tape or if it is audio recording video recorder was turned on. The use of video or audio-recording may actually make it even harder to disprove such allegations as they lend a veneer of respectability to the process.
- To put things in perspective, an accused person’s confession statement, if any, is only one component of a range of evidence that the Police will usually adduce to prove its case against the accused. In addition, as Ms Lim knows, we have an established process called the “voir dire” or “trial within a trial” where the Trial Judge will review the evidence to assess if a confession statement, was made voluntarily, or was made as a result of an “inducement, threat or promise”. And indeed with this safeguard in place, there have been instances when confession statements have been thrown out.
- The crux of the matter lies in whether Singaporeans have trust and confidence in our legal system and our Police Force. On both counts, this is the case. Our criminal justice system is reputed for its clean administration, impartiality and efficiency and the public has trust and confidence in our Police Force.
- Taken as a whole I would say, there is no need to implement video or audio recording of police interviews. Ultimately, the bottom line is for the suspect to “tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth”. He should do so even without any video or audio recording. SMS’s reply during clarification time
- As a preface to my remarks just now, we are still looking at all the details of the Criminal Procedure Code so since it is COS and the members have asked, I have given a sketch of what is to come. But certainly in terms of the details, it will be too premature to give the details here. Otherwise you would say it is already cooked. We are actually cooking it and we want to consult the stakeholders. But certainly in terms of timelines, we look at what is a fair timeline because here the point is to inject greater transparency. So it will not work if the prosecution tenders its case to the defence too late for the defence to even prepare its case.
- The other point is exculpatory statements. Again we are looking at the entire situation. What we are considering is after the defence has submitted its case to the prosecution, the prosecution will tender to the defence all relevant statements to the accused. So it may very well include exculpatory statements. Even now, exculpatory statements are taken into account by the prosecution. There is nothing to hide because in framing the charge or in deciding whether to charge the accused, all these will form an entire matrix of evidence that will be considered by the Public Prosecutor, when he exercises his discretion whether or not to charge.
- On video taping, like I said, I think the context is important. Why other countries have introduced video taping? The context is really the loss of confidence in the Police and public outcry to get the Police to show what it is doing. And so in the context in Singapore, this is not the case and in any case as I have said, even if the accused challenges the confession statement, its validity or its voluntariness, there is an established process where this can be verified or indeed thrown out by the Courts as it has happened. For the more serious cases, my understanding, e.g. murder and other cases, it is not likely that prosecution will proceed based on a confession statement alone. And more certainly in recent years, forensic science and the ability to cull evidence from different sources, this is seldom the case.
- On the Criminal Procedure Code, we are looking at the details and my understanding is that and there will be provisions for consequences if there is non-disclosure of documents.
- On Mr Palmer’s other point on access to counsel, it is a movement on the Police’s part. We do not go all the way as in other countries. But in good faith, we have opened up the process so the accused at least would have sight of his lawyer and the accused would know that a lawyer is helping him but we also want to avoid the situation where the accused discusses his case with his lawyer. That may constitute interference with the investigation, as coaching can take place. That is something that we do not want to happen. The presence of a lawyer will be a calming factor to the accused. And basically like I have said, the requirement is for the accused to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth and we go on the premise that Singapore Police Force will not tolerate rogue officers and will be very hard on those who do wrong and abuse the process.
- We should let the system run, a system which has worked. But for access to counsel, I think, the Law Society has been informed that we had a pilot project. We have talking about a small minority of cases. Only 10% of arrested persons remain in custody beyond 48 hours and 1% are remanded beyond one week. Towards the end of one week, even though investigations may not be fully completed but nearing completion, instead of one-week remand period being taken to the full, Police is at least prepared now to consider letting the accused know that he has counsel and letting counsel see him.
- SLA has done much to open up vacant State lands and buildings for community uses, in part by the prompting of Members of this House every year.
- 284 parcels of vacant state land are now opened to the public, free of charge, for casual community and recreational activities, a substantial increase from the 153 sites when this initiative was launched in 2003. Many of these lands are in Members’ constituencies. Activities on these lands include soccer and kite flying. Over the past year, SLA has levelled and improved the condition of these lands.
- The signs on these lands, as Mr Masagos has mentioned, have evolved from “No Trespassing” - which is foreboding - to “Enter at Your Own Risk” - still quite unfriendly to some people as had been fedback to me and Minlaw - to now friendlier signs that basically say you can come in, but when you use these fields be careful as the fields are not for all sorts of activities and are not perfect fields. SLA went the extra mile to make the fields more level by compacting them.
- The public can just go to the fields, without booking, for weekend soccer and kite flying. And the sites are on SLA’s website as to where they are.
- SLA also issues licenses to grassroots organizations, at subsidized rates, for their constituents to use State lands. 131 such lands are in use, as football fields, street-soccer pitches, and so forth.
- Another initiative launched last year was where private and public sector organisations, as raised by Mr Masagos, come aboard and adopt a field. If the field is next to your company’s premises, and you use it after work, adopt it. Of course when you use it, you also take care of it. So there is some sense of stakeholding and togetherness in this. The FAS went off the block early by adopting Farrer Park.
- On Mr Masagos’ suggestion to accommodate greater private sector participation, SLA welcomes proposals from commercial organisations interested in partnering non-profit organisations and Government agencies to use State land and buildings for social and recreational purposes with the support of a championing Ministry. This is similar to SLA’s rental of State buildings directly to voluntary welfare organisations (VWOs) and private entities for social uses on the request of supporting Ministries. Indeed, currently there are 54 State properties being used in this way, the number having grown considerably since the 1990s.
- While we have received positive feedback on these measures, SLA will continue to be proactive and make available more State land and premises for community use.
Last updated on 26 Nov 2012