A Guide to Getting Legal Aid in Singapore
One of the key goals of the legal system is to attain justice. However, access to the legal system may be hindered when engaging a lawyer for legal advice and representation is costly.
If you are unable to afford the full costs of hiring a lawyer, there are various avenues available to ensure that you are able to get the help and support that you need for your matter.
This article details the different legal aid schemes available in Singapore for those facing financial difficulty in engaging lawyers.
What is Legal Aid?
Legal aid refers to the assistance of a lawyer to provide legal advice and legal representation to those who are unable to afford legal services. The aim of providing legal aid is to ensure access to justice by ensuring people can uphold their rights and have the means to navigate the justice system with the help of a lawyer.
Differences between legal aid and legal clinics
Legal aid services involve appointing a lawyer or lawyers to represent you in your case in court or assist you with legal matters, either at a subsidised rate or free of charge (i.e. pro bono). Such assistance may include representation in court, legal advice on the matter or drafting of legal documents such as wills. Legal aid services are largely provided for by the government.
Legal clinics typically provide pro bono quick consultations on legal matters. The advice is limited in scope to certain types of legal matters or issues. The legal clinics are unable to represent you in legal matters should you proceed to court. Legal clinics can be run by the government or non-profit organisations.
If you wish to pursue the matter further but are unable to afford the legal fees for doing so, then you may have to consider seeking legal aid.
How Does One Qualify for Legal Aid?
To be eligible for legal aid, you would generally need to pass a means test as well as a merits test. The means test assesses your financial circumstances to determine if your financial means are below a certain threshold, while the merits test assesses whether you have reasonable grounds for bringing or defending a case in court.
The specific standard of assessment for different types of legal aid services will differ. You should review the list of options available and consult the relevant organisations for more detailed information on your eligibility.
Legal Aid Services for individuals
Generally, the type of legal aid available would depend on the nature of the legal matter. The relevant legal aid schemes are:
- For criminal law matters
- For family law and other legal issues (wills/probate/civil claims etc.)
- For charities/NGOs
- For foreigners
Criminal law matters
If you are faced with a criminal charge, you may approach the following organisations. The legal aid scheme that you are eligible for will depend on the type of offence committed.
Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS)
The Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) provides pro bono legal assistance to persons facing charges in court for certain non-capital criminal offences (i.e. criminal offences that do not carry the death penalty such as theft, assault and vandalism). Persons who are already charged with such an offence or wish to file/defend an appeal in court may apply to CLAS.
To qualify for legal aid under CLAS, you must pass a means and merits test, and must not currently be represented by a lawyer. Applicants will be assigned a volunteer lawyer to handle their case. Eligible applicants may still be required to co-pay the costs of legal aid rendered. The sum will be calculated based on the applicant’s financial means.
You may apply for legal aid under CLAS online via this form.
Public Defender’s Office
The Public Defender’s Office (PDO) is a department under the Ministry of Law that assigns successful applicants a lawyer for non-capital offences. Legal aid will only be provided for offences under the Public Defender’s Act and excludes:
- Offences punishable by death
- Offences that are regulatory in nature and departmental charges. Offences are regulatory in nature where individuals are served with a Notice to Attend Court or issued a summons (e.g., traffic summons):
- By an officer of a statutory body; or
- Under any of these 36 Acts
- Offences under these 10 Acts relating to gambling, organised and syndicate crime, and terrorism
- Offences prosecuted by a private organisation or individual who believes an offence has been committed against them. The private person is the one pursuing legal action rather than the public prosecutor.
Criminal legal assistance rendered by the PDO is only available to Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. Foreign applicants seeking legal aid should apply for legal aid under CLAS. Applicants would also need to pass a means and merit test.
You may apply for legal aid under the PDO online via this form.
Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offence (LASCO)
Persons charged with capital offences (i.e. offences which carry the death penalty) will be automatically assigned free legal counsel by the state under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offence (LASCO), regardless of nationality.
There is no means test to pass or eligibility criteria for LASCO. Your legal team will usually consist of 2 defence counsels – one to lead, and one to assist – to represent you at trial and on appeal.
Family law and other legal issues (wills/probate/civil claims, etc.)
Family Justice Support Scheme (FJSS)
The Family Justice Support Scheme (FJSS) provides legal advice and legal representation for family matters such as divorce, family violence, maintenance and children-related issues.
You qualify for aid under FJSS if you are:
- A Singaporean or Permanent Resident who has Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) and marginally failed your means test; or
- A foreigner married to a Singaporean and has a Singaporean child/children.
You would also have to pass FJSS’s means and merits tests.
Legal Aid Bureau (LAB)
The Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) under the Ministry of Law offers legal aid services for civil matters. These include divorce, custody and probate matters, legal advice as well as legal assistance in drafting wills and deeds of separation.
LAB’s legal aid scheme is available for Singapore citizens and permanent residents as well as citizens or residents of contracting states involved in applications under the Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction.
To qualify for legal aid, you will need to pass a means test and a merits test. You may be required to make a financial contribution to the Bureau for legal assistance. Depending on your financial means, the complexity of your case and the type of work done, the total amount of contribution may be up to S$1,650 but the amount may be higher in complex cases where a significant amount of work is required.
Primary Justice Project (PJP)
The Primary Justice Project (PJP) is run by the Community Justice Centre. The PJP provides you with a lawyer who will render you basic legal advice and facilitate settlement of your dispute before taking legal action in court.
The legal aid service covers:
- Civil claims below $60,000;
- Divorce matters with most ancillary matters close to settlement;
- Harassment cases and neighbour disputes.
Legal aid is provided at a fixed fee of S$1,800 (excluding GST and other disbursements) capped at 6 hours of legal consultation and facilitation for settlement of your dispute.
Legal aid services for charities/NGOs
Charities and NGOs may require pro bono corporate law or business law advice. This is especially the case for charities and NGOs that are not yet established in the sector and may face budgetary constraints or lack sufficient funding, and are therefore not able to afford the costs of engaging an external counsel.
Project Law Help
Project Law Help is an initiative of the Pro Bono Services Office of the Law Society of Singapore to assist charities, voluntary organisations and social enterprises in furtherance of the organisation’s purposes. Project Law Help will match the needs of the non-profit organisation with law firms participating in the project.
Examples of legal matters that Project Law Help can support include:
- Corporate law – providing advice on contracts with suppliers or drafting indemnity agreements for corporate sponsors
- Employment law – reviewing employment contracts
- Intellectual property law – advising on copyright and website use
- Property law – providing advice on terms of lease contracts
- Other legal matters not involving litigation advice or representation
Legal aid services for foreigners
There are various organisations that provide legal aid and additional support to foreigners regarding common legal issues faced such as non-payment of salary, work injury compensation or workplace abuse.
Humanitarian Organisation for Migration Economics (HOME)
The Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics (HOME) provides free legal advice and possibly legal representation to migrant workers facing issues such as workplace abuse, wage theft (i.e. where workers are denied their legally or contractually promised wages such as unpaid wages or underpayment of wages), work injuries and poor living conditions.
If you are a foreign worker seeking work injury compensation, it is also possible for you to claim compensation by yourself without hiring a lawyer. For more information, check out our article on work injury compensation.
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2)
Transient Workers Count Too (TWC2) is a non-profit organisation that assists low-wage migrant workers. TWC2 advocates for fair treatment for migrant workers, ensures that these workers’ workplace rights have not been violated and medical support among other aims.
TWC2 runs several programmes, such as ‘Social Worker Always There’ (SWAT), which offers legal advice to migrant workers experiencing cases of workplace injury, abuse, permit issues or late salary payments. SWAT may help by computing the amount of salary owed, compiling evidence to press their case and following up on the dispute resolution process to conclusion.
Justice Without Borders (JWB)
Justice Without Borders (JWB) is a non-profit organisation that provides legal aid to migrant workers and foreign domestic workers from Indonesia and the Philippines with cases of labour exploitation and human trafficking. JWB partners with law firms, government agencies and other stakeholders to support migrant workers in seeking compensation against their abusers, even after returning home.
When you approach JWB for assistance, you will need to submit all relevant evidence of the wrongdoing. For salary-related disputes, such evidence includes documentation relating to your job, employment contracts, immigration documents and any other document showing that you were or were not paid. For abuse or injury claims, you may need to prepare copies of your medical records, police report and any photographs of your injuries.
Foreign Domestic Worker Association for Social Support and Training (FAST)
FAST offers free mediation services to resolve issues and disputes between foreign domestic workers and their employers, in the presence of an accredited mediator. Mediations can be scheduled on given dates or on an ad-hoc basis.
FAST also partners with the Law Society Pro Bono Services to provide legal aid services including workshops and legal counselling services to migrant workers.
Depending on whether you are an individual or an entity as well as the type of issue you are facing, there are different specialised legal aid schemes available. If you are looking for pro bono legal advice, you may refer to the list of legal clinics in Singapore run by various organisations, which includes organisations that offer legal aid and support on Syariah law-related matters.
Alternatively, you may seek legal advice through our Call a Lawyer service where you can get a 20-minute phone consultation with a lawyer on your legal matter within 24 hours for just $59. Our free Find a Lawyer service also helps with obtaining and comparing quotations from multiple lawyers.