What are the Fees for Hiring a Criminal Lawyer in Singapore?

Last updated on December 10, 2018

lawyer and client shaking hand.

If you’ve been charged with a criminal offence, you’ll want to find a lawyer you can trust to advance your interests, and at a fee which you can afford. Here’s more information on hiring a criminal lawyer in Singapore and the fees you can expect to pay.

Criminal Law is a Niche Area of Legal Practice in Singapore

When you’re looking for a criminal lawyer, it’s important to first understand that criminal practice in Singapore is a rather niche area for lawyers. There are really only a few hundred lawyers in the country who regularly practise criminal law and have the confidence and the expertise to do so properly.

Therefore, understand that you’ll have a smaller range of options available to you in choosing a lawyer in this area of practice.

The Economics of Criminal Legal Practice

It’s also important to understand the economics behind the practice of criminal law to understand the kind of fee arrangements you can expect.

Criminal law is often practised in Singapore as a high-volume, low-margin service. This means that fees are extremely competitive but that the lawyers with the lowest fees typically need to minimise face-time (or indeed the total time spent on your case) and provide a rather generic cookie-cutter service in order to turn a profit.

This is a product of the reality that the bulk of clients in criminal practice simply can’t afford to pay for the time a lawyer would need to give each client extensive individual attention.

For this reason, fixed fee arrangements, capped fee arrangements and estimated fee ranges dominate in criminal practice and hourly billing is almost unheard of.

Quotes are usually given based on whether the case is a PG or a CT, i.e. a Plead Guilty case or a Claim Trial case.

Pleading Guilty vs. Claiming Trial: Which Will Cost More and Why?

If you plead guilty and the only purpose of your legal representation is to secure as low a sentence as possible, the scope of work involved is greatly reduced and usually pretty easy to replicate from the lawyer’s past cases, with just a little custom-tweaking to fit your factual scenario.

If you contest the charges and claim your right to a trial, the workload required of the lawyer to do the job properly is huge. The experience he/she will require to do the job properly is much higher and harder to find and you will therefore need to pay much more.

Accordingly, two breeds of lawyers (i.e. PG lawyers and trial lawyers) have developed to deal with these two rather different functions.

That said, be honest with your lawyer from day one about how you intend to plead (and about everything else) so both of you can plan your strategy consistently together from the outset.

Also, be open to changing your mind about your plea as your case develops and more information becomes available about your prospects of success. Your lawyer should help you to continually re-assess your prospects at each stage of the case.

What If You Want to Claim Trial for Your Criminal Charges?

If you are speaking to a PG lawyer about claiming trial, he/she will usually:

  • Decline to act for you; and/or
  • Try to persuade you to plead guilty instead.

To be fair, even a good trial lawyer will always encourage you to consider a guilty plea in appropriate circumstances. This is simply because, in Singapore, acquittals after trial are relatively rare, so more often than not, it is actually in a client’s interest to plead guilty.

Of course, there will be some cases where the consequences of a guilty plea are so dire that there is little incentive not to claim trial, even if the chances of success are low, e.g. capital cases, or mandatory minimum sentences of lengthy imprisonment.

However, you should be sure that your lawyer’s motives in suggesting a guilty plea are pure and not financially motivated or driven by a lack of confidence in his/her ability, or a lack of interest in taking trial cases.

If you think there’s any possibility you may want to contest the charges against you:

  • Always be sure to engage a lawyer who has a history of going to trial for his/her clients (so that you know that he/she has the ability and the will to do so when it’s in your interests); and
  • Be explicit in stating that you can afford to pay whatever fees have been proposed should your case go to trial.

What You Get (and Don’t Get) for a Fixed Fee PG

When a lawyer gives a fixed fee quote for a PG case, often he/she envisages doing the following things and no more:

  1. Write a letter of representation to the prosecution;
  2. Possibly hold one short meeting with the prosecution (e.g. for plea bargaining);
  3. Write a written plea of mitigation for submission to court;
  4. Show up in court to adjourn your court date until 1-3 above has been done; and
  5. Show up in court on the date you plead guilty to highlight a few points from your written mitigation plea.

The majority of PG cases tend to follow this rather formulaic modus operandi. Any deviation from this scope of work is usually not anticipated by a fixed fee quote and the lawyer will either not want to do anything additional or will want to charge more for it.

Also, be aware that any fixed price quote you receive typically excludes GST and disbursements as well as the fees to be paid should there be any appeal of the outcome by either you or the prosecution.

The kind of disbursements that may be incurred may vary dramatically depending on the needs of your case, e.g. whether or not your case will require the appointment of a private investigator to gather evidence for your defence.

Therefore, it is advisable to discuss the kind of disbursements that are anticipated in your case in advance so that you can plan your cash-flow accordingly.

Should You Hire a Criminal Lawyer by the Hour for a PG Case?

If money is no object, it may be advisable for you to turn down a lawyer’s offer of fixed or capped fees and suggest hourly rates instead. While this will usually be more expensive, it will ensure that your lawyer does what you need him/her to do, when you need it.

For example, there are a variety of other things that you may need depending on how your particular case develops. This could include a series of successive letters of representation to be exchanged with the prosecution or more than one meeting to be held with them.

You may need various applications for bail review, or leave to travel out of the country, or leave to substitute a bailor. You may need certain procedural decisions of the District Court to be appealed to the High Court.

You may also need to temporarily claim trial in order to trigger the discovery process, draft a defence and thereby obtain some evidence from the prosecution before you are in a position to make an informed decision on how to plead.

Good criminal lawyers should be prepared to advise you on these steps where appropriate and carry out your instructions. However, the cheapest PG lawyers may not welcome such instructions and suggest that you engage another lawyer instead.

In any case where you need anything outside of the usual formula for a PG case (see the 5 steps above), you shouldn’t necessarily expect any lawyer to include those services within the scope of a fixed fee arrangement. That’s why proposing hourly billing, at least for a PG case, can often make it easier to quickly give your lawyer instructions when you need anything that is deemed slightly out of the ordinary.

When Do Criminal Lawyers Expect to be Paid?

In terms of when your criminal lawyer will expect payment, usually they require payment of a deposit before they will agree to go on record as your lawyer.

Fees thereafter are usually paid in tranches that correspond with the stages of your case, with the final payment to be received before the date of your trial or guilty plea.

Lawyers can, and often do, discharge themselves from acting further for clients, even on the day of trial or guilty plea if they have not received payment. Accordingly, it is important to ensure that your lawyer has been paid before the appointed date.

What If You Cannot Afford to Hire a Criminal Lawyer?

If you cannot afford to pay the fees for a trial (which, as a very rough guide, you should expect to be at least a 5-figure sum, or in very complex cases, a 6-figure sum), you can consider applying for criminal legal aid, which is provided by the Law Society of Singapore (or in capital cases, by the Supreme Court).

There is a very strict means test for criminal legal aid (except for capital cases) which can be very difficult to pass if you have been consistently gainfully employed over the past year and do not have children.

However, if you qualify you usually won’t have to pay more than a nominal contribution plus disbursements for the services of a lawyer, even if it goes to trial.

The big down-side with this though is that you don’t get to choose your own lawyer. While many of Singapore’s best criminal lawyers take legal aid cases, so do many of Singapore’s worst criminal lawyers.

You will have to be prepared for the possibility that you may be unlucky enough to be assigned a PG lawyer who won’t want to go to trial for you, even if there are good reasons to do so, and end up in the delicate situation of having to ask to be reassigned a more proactive trial lawyer. For this reason, if you have access to funds with which you can choose, engage and pay for your own lawyer, it is highly advisable that you do so.

To start doing your homework on the best criminal lawyer for your case, you can browse the criminal lawyers on our website and see what their past clients say about them.