Legal aid is available for Singaporeans and PR
The Legal Aid Bureau provides assistance to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents who need access to legal representation in civil cases but are unable to afford it. They must be:
- Singapore citizens or permanent residents who are in Singapore;
- Citizens or residents of contracting states who are involved in applications under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction
- Above 21 years old of age (younger applicants will require a parent or guardian to apply on their behalves)
What are the types of services available?
The Legal Aid Bureau provides:
- Legal advice – advice from a lawyer on Singapore Law
- Legal assistance – drafting simple documents
- Legal aid – representation in civil court
The Legal Aid Bureau requires an applicant to pass a Means test and a Merits test to qualify for legal aid.
Why is a means test required to qualify for legal aid?
The means test determines if an applicant is eligible for legal aid by examining his/her disposable income and disposable capital. This is necessary because not having a means test would likely impose a strain on the legal aid schemes and make it unviable. The means test is intended to, therefore, prioritise the applicants who have the lowest means to afford legal help.
What is the means test?
To pass the means test, you should:
- Not have a disposable income greater than S$10,000 per year and
- Not have disposable capital of more than S$10,000
Disposable income is defined as the combined income of the applicant and the income of the spouse of the applicant (where applicable) over the 12 months prior to the application after deductions (where applicable) of:
- Up to S$6,000 for each dependent
- S$6,000 for the applicant
- Up to S$20,000 for rent
- Applicant’s contributions to CPF
Disposable capital is defined as property the applicant owns excluding:
- Any subject matter involved in the proceedings
- Any tools of trade owned by applicant (i.e. any equipment used by the applicant to make a living)
- Household furniture
- Savings of up to S$30,000 for applicants aged 60 years and above
- A dwelling house assessed at an IRAS annual value of not more than S$13,000; or a Housing and Development Board flat, both must be owned and exclusively used by the applicant and his / her family as their home
- Money in the applicant’s CPF account
- Up to S$46,000 of the total surrender value of life insurance policies.
You can refer to this short questionnaire provided by the Ministry of Law to help work through if you pass the means test.
Legal aid is only granted after your application is reviewed by the Legal Aid Bureau
However, just fulfilling these criteria does not guarantee that an applicant will get access to legal aid. Applicants have to swear a Statutory Declaration before a Commissioner of Oaths on their means (applicants who make false declarations may be charged with an offence and may be liable on conviction to a fine of up to $5,000 or imprisonment of up to 6 months or to both).
Applicants who pass the means test will have their requests for legal aid formally reviewed by the Legal Aid Bureau.
How do you apply for legal aid?
If you think that you pass the Means test and Merits test and qualify for legal aid, you can apply for legal aid when you:
- Personally visit the Legal Aid Bureau (45 Maxwell Road #08-12, The URA Centre East Wing, Singapore 069118) in person to register your application
- Bring along your identity card, recent payslips from your employer showing your income, CPF statement with your contributions for the past 12 months and bank statement and any other relevant documents. The full list of documents can be downloaded from the Legal Aid Bureau’s website.
- Pay the registration fee of S$1.00 when you apply
- Go through an interview with the Legal Aid Bureau’s customer service officers about your income and assets on the same day
Alternatively, you can submit an online application.
If your application for legal aid is successful, you may receive oral legal advice on the same day by a legal officer or if you require legal assistance or aid, the customer service officers will help make an appointment on your behalf.
How long does the process of getting legal aid take?
Urgent applications or situations demanding immediate attention are handled by in-house counsels or the panel solicitors on the same working day (before closure of business hours). If the matters are not urgent, they are handled within 48 hours. On the whole, the system is efficient and all matters are brought to court’s attention as soon as practicable.
You may be required to pay a small contribution for legal aid
It is a common misconception that legal aid is always completely free. This is not necessarily always the case. Most successful applicants and recipients of legal aid will be required to pay a small financial contribution depending on the applicant’s ability and the complexity of legal aid provided. This is part of the co-payment principle, which seeks to foster greater self-ownership of legal aid cases.
How much a successful applicant for legal aid has to pay depends on the means of the parties. Normally, Legal Aid Bureau, will not disclose the quantum to the public as the Bureau must look into each party’s means. The Bureau will also look at the probable length of time the grant of aid will be in force. The Bureau may allow the applicants to pay the contribution in a lump sum or in instalments. Depending on the circumstances and in cases where the applicant’s income is very low, there may not be any contribution at all. If the applicant fails to pay any contributions, the Legal Aid Bureau will have the first charge over the property reserved or recovered for the applicant in the proceedings.
Applicants granted legal aid are not allowed to gamble in local casinos until their legal aid cases are closed
The Third-Party Casino Exclusion prohibits applicants from entering, remaining in or taking part in any gaming on any local casino premises until all active legal aid cases are closed.
Is there a limit to the amount of legal aid available for a successful applicant?
The Board (constituted by the Legal Aid Bureau) determines the nature of the proceedings in which legal aid is sought and the circumstances in which the aid is required and the questions whether it is reasonable that the grant be issued, and the director to determine the disposable income and disposable capital of the applicant.
If both parties are legally aided, the Bureau may not act for either party and in such circumstances, assign the matter to panel solicitors.
Once the applicants are assigned their lawyers, the matter will be handled until the order is obtained. The grant of aid does not extend to more than one action, cause or matter (except for interim applications within the same matter) or for enforcement of any such order or agreement, for example, monies payable to aided applicants.
If the applicant intends to appeal the matter to a higher court, legal aid is not automatically extended as the Board must determine the merits of the appeal and grant aid to fight the case in the appellate court. Where the matter is very urgent, the Bureau will issue a provisional grant of aid for the case to be filed in court, thereafter, the Board will require the solicitor to provide a detailed opinion on the merits of the case to finalise the aid.
What about a Merits test?
Under Regulation 3 of the Legal Aid and Advice Regulations, the Board (constituted by the Legal Aid Bureau) determines the nature of the proceedings in which legal aid is sought and the circumstances in which the aid is required and the questions whether it is reasonable that the grant be issued, and the director to determine the disposable income and disposable capital of the applicant.
The Legal Aid matters are handled by the in-house lawyers of the Legal Aid Bureau or the assigned solicitors (panel of solicitors) of the Legal Aid Bureau.
Under the Merits Test, you must show that you have a good reason to bring or defend your case under the law. When the matter is assigned to the panel of solicitors, the Board will require the assigned solicitors to render their opinion on the merits of the case. The Board will then determine whether or not the case has merits. If the Board is of the view that your case has merits and the chances of success is not very low, legal aid will be extended. In cases where children’s interests are involved, the Board will grant aid for the welfare and well-being of the children.
The Board’s decision is final.
Will the aid be discontinued or canceled by the Legal Aid Bureau
The Board may cancel the aid upon the applicant’s request or in a number of other situations, such as if it is of the view that the applicant requires the case to be conducted unreasonably so as to incur an unjustifiable expense out of the fund or if the Board believes, pursuant to new information, that it is not fair or justifiable to continue the aid for the applicant.
However, the applicant cannot discharge his solicitor and the solicitor cannot discontinue his aid without the consent of the Director of Legal Aid Bureau.
If the applicant seeking legal aid or advice knowingly provides false or misleading information or representation in his application or fails to make full disclosure of his or her means or fails to update the change in circumstances to the Bureau rendering him or her ineligible for aid, he/she is guilty of an offence punishable with fine of $5,000 or to imprisonment up to 6 months or to both.
Will the Legal Aid Bureau monitor the cases assigned to panel solicitors?
The solicitor in charge must provide regular updates on the progress of the case. The solicitor is required to fill in forms updating the progress of the case in court and also provide detailed case analysis when the matter goes to trial. The Director has the power to require the solicitor to render an opinion on any point of the law arising from the case.
Recently, the Bureau has launched an online portal to go paperless, where the assigned solicitors are able to provide regular updates and are able to upload the cause papers and orders. The Bureau assigns cases to the solicitors through the portal. The portal is user-friendly and easy to use.
What happens to errant litigants?
If the applicants do not follow the advice of the solicitors or behave in a manner that is not appropriate in the conduct of the case, the Legal Aid may be canceled. When the Bureau receives the lawyer’s feedback on the applicant’s conduct, it will issue a notice to the applicant to explain his or her conduct and thereafter, the Board will decide whether or not to extend the legal aid. The lawyer must also inform the Bureau of the merits of the advice rendered and rejected by the applicant.
Do Assigned Solicitors allot the same amount of time to Legal Aid Applicants as they do for their private clients?
There are some legally aided applicants who believe that the solicitors do not pay equal attention to legal aid and private briefs. However, the truth is, all solicitors in charge strive to spend their time on all the cases on hand and do their best to protect their clients’ interests. The solicitors ensure that their clients are well-represented in court. At the end of the day, the solicitors’ ethical and professional responsibilities are the same for private and legally aided clients.
Will the court issue cost orders against the Legally Aided Litigants?
The court will usually not order costs against the Legally Aided Litigant if the litigant loses the case. If the Legally Aided Litigant wins the case, the court may order costs to be paid by the opposing party to the Director of the Legal Aid Bureau. If both parties are legally aided there will be no cost orders.
Nevertheless, if the court finds out that the applicant obtained aid by fraud or misrepresentation, it will order the applicant to pay the costs to the Director of Legal Bureau and/or the solicitor and/or the other party in the matter.
What happens if the lawsuit has already commenced when the applicant applies for legal aid?
If the proceedings are ongoing in court, the Legal Aid Bureau will immediately issue a certificate stating that the proceedings will be stayed for 14 days from the date of issuance, pending the outcome of the application for legal aid.
What about applicants under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction?
Parents who are Singaporeans and Permanent Residents are eligible to apply for legal aid in cases of child abduction in contracting states. Both the left behind parent and taking parent may apply for aid. The taking parent may apply through the Singapore Central Authority and the left behind parent in Singapore may apply at the Legal Aid Bureau. Both parties will have to go through the means and merits test.
Can a minor apply for legal aid?
It is possible for legal guardians or relatives of the minors to apply for legal aid on behalf of the minor. The Bureau will check the eligibility of the guardians/relatives and the minors under the Regulations.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to a practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.