The Need for Greater Legal Representation in Singapore

By Chong Joe En

In an archetypal criminal case, an accused person is safeguarded and championed by his defence counsel. Yet this stereotype does not always hold true. In his 2010 Keynote Addressto the staff of the Subordinate Courts of Singapore, former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong noted with concern that accused persons represent themselves in about one-third of all criminal cases. “Those in need of legal services”, he said, “should never be deprived by ignorance or poverty”.

In her recent article “Developing a People Centered Justice in Singapore: In Support of Pro Bono and Innocence Efforts2, published in the Cincinnati Law Review, Assistant Professor Cheah Wui Ling of NUS Law echoed these sentiments. She argues that “there is a need to ensure that all accused persons have access to competent legal representation and assistance regardless of the nature of their crimes and their socio-economic background.”

Professor Cheah’s article highlights how 3 different groups in Singapore have arisen to address this need, namely, the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) under the Law Society of Singapore, the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS), and the Innocence Project.

The “front end” need for criminal legal aid, which involves pre-trial, trial and appeals, is primarily met by CLAS and ACLS. The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) provides representation for accused persons charged under specific statutory offences, such as the Misuse of Drugs Act. Special cases identified by the Subordinate Courts may also be referred to the Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore (ACLS) who undertakes them on a pro-bono basis.

‘the Project will assist the individual in preparing their case for revision.’

Also of interest is Singapore’s Innocence Project which focuses on the “back end” of the criminal process by facilitating the correction of wrongful convictions. Individuals who have exhausted all avenues of appeal can write-in to the Project and, depending on the merits of their case; the Project will assist the individual in preparing their case for revision. The article characterises the Innocence Project’s approach as one of “raising awareness” and “establishing relationships of trust with external stakeholders.

Our Judiciary’s strict crime-control stance has often been attributed to as a key factor in the keeping local crime rates low. But that goal is not necessarily mutually exclusive with protecting the fundamental liberties of accused persons, chiefly – the right to legal representation. This editor wholly supports the article’s position that because such legal aid can often bring pertinent or undiscovered facts and arguments to the Courts’ attention; it will further, rather than detract from, a just outcome.

Professor Cheah’s article is an illuminating read and marks the increasingly important role that local pro-bono efforts will play in ensuring said legal representation.

Chong Joe En, 22, is a first-year student at National University of Singapore (Law)



 “Access to Quality Justice for All”, Keynote address by the Honourable former Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong, Subordinate Courts Workplan 2010


Article courtesy of Assistant Professor Cheah Wui Ling, National University of Singapore, Faculty of Law, to be published in the Cincinnati Law Review (2013), please do not cite unpublished version without author’s permission