New Public Defender’s Office offers pro bono legal aid for the needy

02/12/2022

The PAP Government wants the vulnerable to have access to justice. The new Public Defender’s Office (PDO), launched Dec 1 to give free legal aid to the less-well-off, is a big step towards this goal.

“A sound criminal justice system is crucial to any society. And in Singapore, it serves as the foundation for our safe and orderly society,” said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong at the PDO’s State Courts launch, where Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong and Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Law Rahayu Mahzam accompanied him. 

“We decided that to better serve the ends of Justice, and help those who cannot afford legal representation, a Public Defenders’ Office should be established,” he added about the Government’s actions after the passing of the Public Defenders Bill earlier this year.

“This will ensure that the most vulnerable amongst us can have access to legal representation if they face criminal charges.”

Who’s eligible?

Source: MinLaw Facebook

Established and freshly-graduated lawyers staff the PDO full-time. They assist the Chief Public Defender in carrying out his functions under the Public Defenders Act 2022.

The PDO here provides “legal representation to accused persons of limited means in certain criminal proceedings”, and is for Singaporeans from the 35th percentile of household income.

This legal representation is for local non-capital criminal charges.

The charges which the PDO excludes are gambling, terrorism, organised crime and offences punishable by death.  Private prosecutions and statutory board summons (such as for traffic offences) are also not covered.  

Regardless, the PDO still covers “most types of criminal offences”, notes the PDO website.

The PDO will conduct a financial means test as well as a case merits test before assigning a Public Defender to the accused.

People can apply online here. (Information about in-person applications is below this article.)

Helping beyond the courts 

The PAP Government also knows that legal aid applicants often have long-term financial and social needs, and that legal representation alone cannot meet those.

“To assist such applicants holistically, the Public Defender’s Office will partner and work closely with the Social Service Offices in MSF and other community organisations,” said DPM Wong.

“For example, the office will refer applicants with financial and social needs to SSOs and community partners. These partners in turn can refer cases which require legal representation to our public defenders.”

The PDO also works closely with Pro Bono SG and the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS). Here, CLAS affords legal assistance to those unable to afford a lawyer who are being charged with non-death penalty offenses covered under CLAS’s statutes. 

“So ours will be a hybrid model of criminal legal aid,” said DPM Wong.

And the Government is committed to the PDO as well as the equitable provision of justice.

“Having learnt from the experiences elsewhere, we believe it is possible to structure government-funded legal aid in Singapore in a practical and fiscally-sustainable manner,” said the DPM. 

“To be clear, what we are doing today will still require more funding from the Government,” he stated.

“But I am happy to support the additional resources, including money and manpower, as I believe it will be money well spent for an important, fair and just cause.”

PDO Application

Apply to the PDO in-person at:

  • Ministry of Law Services Centre
    45 Maxwell Road #07-11 The URA Centre (East Wing), Singapore 069118
    Mondays to Fridays: 8:30am to 5:00pm (closed on weekends and public holidays)
  • State Courts (Help Centre)
    1 Havelock Square #B1-18 State Courts, Singapore 059724
    Mondays to Fridays: 9:00am to 12:00pm, 2:00pm to 5:00pm

Bring court documents such as your charge sheet. Bring financial documents like your latest bank account statement.

Cover photo credit: DPM Wong Facebook