The Legal Aid and Advice Ordinance was passed to provide free civil legal aid to deserving cases. Although the Ordinance contained a provision that envisaged legal aid for criminal cases, it was not brought into effect.
The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) was set up as a ground-up initiative to provide criminal defence aid to vulnerable persons facing non-capital charges in Singapore and cannot afford a lawyer. The scheme was privately funded by the Law Society of Singapore and goodwill donations, while volunteer lawyers provided legal representation.
The Law Society Pro Bono Services (now known as Pro Bono SG) took over the administration of CLAS. The Government provided funding to Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office for the general provision of pro bono services.
The Government announced the formation of a Criminal Legal Assistance Steering Committee (CLAS SC), chaired by a High Court judge, and comprising representatives from Law Society of Singapore, the Criminal Bar, Singapore Academy of Law and the Ministry of Law. The CLAS SC was tasked to set out the framework for an enhanced CLAS, in consultation with the Criminal Bar, in order to ensure that such aid was given to deserving cases.
Law firms stepped forward to support pro bono efforts, with 22 law firms signing Memorandums-of-Understanding pledging to take on 300 pro bono criminal cases yearly. The CLAS Fellowship was established with law firms sponsoring or seconding full-time lawyers to work exclusively on CLAS cases.
The Government began funding criminal defence aid provided by CLAS directly. Enhancements to the scheme were introduced to increase the scope of assistance provided, including broadening the means test criterion to allow more applicants to qualify for legal aid, and the introduction of a honoraria to recognise the contributions of volunteers who take on CLAS cases.
From 2015 to 2021, an average of more than 1,200 persons received support each year from CLAS, a three-fold increase from pre-2015. The Government begins co-funding CLAS. Enhancements to the scheme were introduced to increase the scope of assistance provided, including broadening the means test criterion to allow more applicants to qualify for legal aid, and the introduction of honoraria to recognise the contribution of volunteers who take on CLAS cases.
From 2015 to 2021, an average of more than 1,200 persons received support each year from CLAS, a three-fold increase from pre-2015.
In 2018, the Government began a comprehensive review of Singapore’s criminal aid model. In 2020, the Ministry of Law announced that the Government was considering the feasibility of establishing a Public Defender’s Scheme.
On 4 April 2022, the Ministry of Law announced its plans to establish the Public Defender’s Office (PDO) as a department under the Ministry of Law by the end of 2022, to enhance access to justice for vulnerable persons in Singapore. The intention to expand income coverage and widen the scope of offences coverage was also announced.
The Public Defenders Act was passed in Parliament on 1 August 2022 and assented to by the President on 19 August 2022.
On 1 December 2022, the PDO commenced operations.