MORE needy individuals can now qualify for legal aid in civil cases, after rule changes kicked in today.
One of the key amendments affects how the means test works. The amendments could benefit 300,000 people here, and one of its key changes affects the cut-off for the means test.
An applicant with a gross monthly income of around $3,540 and three dependants, for instance, will be eligible for legal aid if he also passes a merits test. Previously, he would need to be earning about $2,600 or less.
This is because while the Legal Aid and Advice Act still requires an annual disposable income and disposable capital $10,000 or less each, the changes make it easier to come under the cap.
When calculating annual disposable income, for example, an applicant can deduct up to $6,000 in living expenses for himself, and the same amount for a spouse and each dependant. It used to be $4,500 for his own expenses, and $3,500 each for the spouse and dependants. In addition, the surrender value of life insurance policies of up to $46,000 will now be disregarded when calculating disposable capital.
The Law Ministry and Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) said in a joint statement yesterday that the amendments, which were passed in Parliament in February this year, would give people who need but cannot afford basic legal services greater access to justice.
Another significant change gives the bureau more discretion in calculating disposable capital in certain matrimonial cases, including those involving minors and involving the personal protection of a child or spouse.
“The key is making sure that people who are needy get access to legal aid for their cases – that is the key principle behind everything we do,” said LAB senior deputy director Louis D’Souza, who expects 2,000 more applicants each year. Annually, there are around 10,000 applicants, with about 90 per cent succeeding.
Mr Josephus Tan, a criminal lawyer with Patrick Tan LLC who was called to the Bar in 2009, said the changes made sense but regular tweaks were needed, to account for inflation, for example.
“The means test will prevent the system from being abused by people who can actually afford a lawyer. But you don’t want it to be so stringent as to prevent people who truly need legal aid from getting it,” he said.
Those who need legal aid in criminal cases can turn to the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which is run by the Law Society of Singapore.