Speech by Mr Louis Ng Kok Kwang, MP for Nee Soon GRC, at the Second Reading of the Public Defenders Bill (Bill No. 17/2022)
Sir, this Bill will establish a Public Defender’s Office, which is a significant step towards increasing access to criminal justice.
I have clarifications to raise in respect of three areas.
Scope of offences
My first area of clarification is on the scope of offences. I have two clarifications.
First, the PDO will collaborate with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which similarly provides criminal legal assistance for the vulnerable and covers offences under 17 statutes, such as the Penal Code, Vandalism Act and the Women’s Charter.
The Ministry has announced that it is considering how best to define cases dealt with by the PDO and CLAS to prevent potential confusion. Can Minister provide an update on how the cases will be scoped?
Second, under sub-section 8(2), a Grant of Aid will not be granted to an offence excluded or belonging to an excluded class, as specified in the Schedule of the Bill.
The Ministry has explained that the Bill will exclude regulatory offences, minor departmental or statutory board charges.
However, regulatory offences can carry potential jail terms.
For instance, the general offence provision under section 22 of the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act provides for jail terms of up to 2 years to be imposed for certain cases.
The general offences and penalties provision under section 131 of the Road Traffic Act provides for jail terms of up to 6 months to be imposed for certain cases.
Can SPS share why such offences are excluded from the Grant of Aid when the potential jail terms are no less than what is provided for other offences covered by the PDO, including those under the Penal Code.
Appointment and discharge of solicitor
My second area of clarification is on the appointment and discharge of a solicitor.
First, under sub-section 8(8), a Grant of Aid may be extended to proceedings involving an excluded offence if the applicant faces charges for two or more offences and one or more of which is an excluded offence, or if the appeal or application arises from the proceedings.
In criminal proceedings, it is common for charges to be withdrawn, taken into consideration, or replaced with alternative charges.
Can SPS share how a Grant of Aid may be affected in a situation where the Prosecution exercises its discretion to withdraw, take into consideration, or replace charges such that the Prosecution will only proceed on excluded offences?
Would this be a ground for the withdrawal of a Grant of Aid? If so, how will the PDO ensure that the defence of the applicant is not prejudiced by any withdrawal of aid?
Second, section 18 provides that criminal defence aid cannot be discontinued without the permission of the Chief Public Defender.
This means that even if an aided accused person no longer wishes to instruct a public defender, the accused person cannot discharge their solicitor without permission.
Practically speaking, it will be extremely difficult for a public defender to take instructions from an aided accused person who no longer wishes to be represented by the public defender.
With any other solicitor-client relationship, a litigant is entitled to discharge their solicitor.
Can Minister clarify the rationale for requiring the permission of the Chief Public Defender before an aided accused person can discharge a solicitor assigned to act for them? What are the situations where the Chief Public Defender may decline the accused person’s request to discharge their public defender?
Third, under section 17, the Chief Public Defender may require an aided accused person to make contributions to a matter where a Grant of Aid has been provided.
In a situation where the aided accused person is unable to meet the contributions, can the Minister share if this is a ground for the discontinuation of the Grant of Aid? If so, how will the PDO ensure that the defence of the applicant is not prejudiced by any withdrawal of aid?
Separation of operations and powers
My final area of clarification is on the relationship between AGC and PDO.
The PDO will be a department under the Ministry of Law. I understand that the AGC is separate from the Ministry of Law. However, the AGC’s functions include acting as the government’s lawyer and advisingministries.
There may still be some potential areas of conflict given the proximity of the Ministry of Law and the AGC. Even if there is no actual conflict, there may still be perceived conflict, which can be equally as damaging.
There is some basis for concerns about conflict given that the government’s position previously was that it may not make sense for the government to be both prosecuting the accused and paying for their defence.
Can Minister share what mechanisms are in place to address the potential areas of conflict, and to ensure that the decision-making and operations of the PDO are independent of the AGC?
Notwithstanding these clarifications, I stand in support of the Bill.
Watch the speech here.