CLD Criminal Law Basics

The Justice Gap: Access to Justice for the Poor in Singapore

Justice is empowering.

And for many a law student, coming to law school is as much about benefitting from its pronounced practical edge as it is about a commitment to high ideals. Many come to law school because they want in some capacity to help the elderly, children, victims of injustice – of our community and the world.

Yet, “justice” is elusive in our legal profession today. When we talk about access to justice, we acknowledge that the playing field is unequal. The turf is titled to favour the rich.

This brings us to the important question: Is our legal system designed only for those who can afford it?


Sobering statistics in Singapore

The numbers do not lie. Vast percentages of litigants who enter our courts go unrepresented.

At the Family Court in 2012, more than 96% of applicants and 99% of respondents for maintenance and personal protection orders went unrepresented. Similarly, 80% of defendants for divorce cases appeared without legal representation (The Straits Times, 21 June 2012). These statistics hail from the Subordinate Courts, where approximately 350,000 cases are heard annually – more than 95% of the total caseload in Singapore.

This is worrying, especially since research confirms that litigants-in-person are much more likely to commit serious mistakes in court. Where nuanced claims like alleged employment discrimination are concerned, manuals on self-representation do not go far enough to help. Legal expertise can make or break a case.

We think George Hausen, executive director of the Legal Aid of North Carolina, put it best when he said, “[The] assistance [litigants] receive with filing and procedure doesn’t guarantee them access to justice, just access to the courthouse door.”

In a survey conducted by the Subordinate Courts revealed that more than half (55%) of Singaporean litigants-in-person said that they could not afford a lawyer while a smaller proportion (29%) felt they did not require professional legal services. These numbers speak to the reality that many litigants fall within the proverbial “sandwich class” – they do not qualify for government legal aid but cannot finance litigation on their own. It is important to mention that this statistic only represents the opinion of those who actually step into our courts. We do not know how many civil or criminal legal needs of low-income Singaporeans go unmet altogether.


What’s being done now?

One of the most promising initiatives that have burst onto the scene is the Community Justice Centre (CJC).

The CJC is an independent charity. It came into being in 2012, and is a product of the cooperation between the State Courts, Ministry of Law, Ministry of Social and Family Development, Tan Chin Tuan Foundation, and the Law Society. It operates to ensure that self-represented litigants understand the jargon and complexity of legal rules, present their case or cross-examine witnesses effectively, and understand judicial rulings in their cases.

On-site lawyers at the Centre render assistance from simple claims, like for breach of contract, to more complex issues, like child custory or cross-border maintenance claims.

Mr Amolat Singh describes the CJC as “a temple of justice to which many a weary and bewildered traveler on the highway of life beats a path seeking some answers, some clarification or just making some sense of the legal morass they find themselves in.”

In 2013, the HELP (Helping to Empower Litigants in Person) Centres under CJC served a total of 3,981 litigants-in-person seeking assistance in various court-related issues.

Another initiative the Civil Justice Division has delivered is eLitigation for civil and family cases. It is a big step towards realising technology’s promise in the legal pro bono sector. eLitigation provides court users with a single accesspoint for all the active case management of court matters. It also serves as a one-stop portal for all case-related interactions with the Courts. With this, advice and information is provided to a far wider community.


What more can be done?

The abovementioned schemes are not exhaustive. The Courts have invested heavily in ramping up legal assistance, and we as a society have become better for it.

But while these schemes are making waves, they continue to face manpower crunches and infrastructure constraints. Consequently, each litigant-in-person has a very limited amount of consultation time. Sometimes, these pockets of consultation are insufficient to help move their cases forward. Thus the obvious path forward, to expand the CJC, would be involving more lawyers in on-site volunteering.

There are also other ways to increase the capacity of our justice system.

For one, Singapore can consider having a list of pro bono lawyers for representation, not merely advice, at the convenient access of litigants-in-person. Similar initiatives have been introduced in other common law jurisdictions to augment access to justice for the poor. In Australia for example, the federal courts provide a Referral for Legal Assistance Scheme. Each of the Australian courts has a list of pro bono attorneys who have agreed to provide pro bono work.

Yet, we should be thinking beyond traditional pro bono strategies. The unsatisfactory state of our pro bono climate is proof itself of the unsustainability of a purely pro bono model.

In order to bridge the chasm between the legal needs of the lower-income and the great resource that is our lawyers, we need to be more tactical about approaching legal aid. We need programmes or new types of firms that conduct “low bono”, which provides legal aid at a lowered or even nominal cost.

“Low bono” is already gaining traction. A great example of this might be the D.C. Affordable Law Firm created in 2015 by the Georgetown University Law Centre. Its goal, loyal to its name, is to provide affordable legal services to DC residents whose incomes fall between 200-400% of the Federal Poverty Level (annual income of approximately USD$23-46k). It helps big firms commit to low-bono work. Since its inception, it has already been described as a “replicable economic model that rewards doing what’s right”.

Of course, this model still involves lawyers who are willing to sacrifice and take lower salaries for challenging work. But such lawyers are, and have always been, the biggest funders of a nation’s access to justice.

In order for the justice system to be effective, we will always need lawyers who have “altruism combined with realism, knowledge of fundamental principles and capacity to apply them, and … enthusiasm for that which is fine and inspiring” (Justin Miller, dean of Duke Law School 1930-34).

All in all, we live in an economically advanced country, with an acute awareness of one’s personal and property rights as well as a greater strain on marriage, meaning that legal assistance will only become more in need in the years to come. The dream is to enable access to justice at every strata of society.

Written in 2016 by Limin Chuan

*The views and opinions expressed in this article do not constitute legal advice and solely belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of the NUS Criminal Justice Club or its affiliates.


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