Speech by SMS Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee during the Committee of Supply Debate 2010
11 Mar 2010 Posted in Speeches
- Sir, I will now deal with the 4 “Cs” – no, not cash, credit card, car and condo, but CMC, CLC, CPC and CBS, all of which I have been overseeing, although for the CPC only during the initial period. And I will end with a “P”, not “Pow,” but pawnbroking.
Update on Community Mediation Centres (CMCs)
- Sir, as society develops, we should guard against becoming overly-litigious. MinLaw therefore actively promotes community mediation as a means of settling relational disputes. We have set up three Community Mediation Centres or CMCs across Singapore, supported by a panel of 139 trained committed volunteer mediators, which last year conducted about 750 mediations, achieving a settlement rate of over 70 percent.
- Sir, the CMCs will work closely with key agencies like the CDCs, Town Councils, Police, HDB branch offices and grassroots organisations to get them to channel cases early to the CMC. We are also amending the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) to strengthen the referral process and encourage the use of mediation to resolve community and social disputes.
- Sir, as mediation is a useful life-skill, MinLaw runs an extensive outreach that has introduced mediation concepts to 80,000 primary and secondary students and equipped them with conflict resolution skills. We recently also started a “Mediator Aide” programme to expose university and polytechnic students to CMC’s work. These two programmes have long-term benefits.
State of Volunteerism
- Sir, notwithstanding alternative means of settling disputes, some will still end up in court. We should therefore ensure that lower-income Singaporeans have access to affordable legal advice and services, if needed. This is where volunteer lawyers can make a difference.
- To the credit of the Bar, the rate of volunteerism amongst lawyers has grown steadily. I hope the work of these volunteer lawyers will receive good publicity. On our part, we will do more to reach out to residents on the ground, I think a point Mr Ong raises. Last year, more than 400 lawyers from 33 law firms volunteered at the Community Legal Clinics, a joint initiative of the Law Society, MinLaw, Singapore Academy of Law or SAL and the NW and SE CDCs. The Legal Aid Bureau, or LAB, has about 200 active volunteer lawyers and last year, they were assigned more than 1,800 cases, about a third of the Bureau’s caseload. Many lawyers also volunteer under schemes like Project Law Help, which provides free commercial advice to non-profit organisations, and help out in pro bono initiatives at the Supreme Court and Subordinate Courts.
Cultivating the Younger Generation
- Sir, MinLaw will continue to collaborate with the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office to strengthen our lawyers’ spirit of volunteerism, especially in the younger ones – I think a point that Mr Ong also makes – by creating opportunities for them to work on actual cases. LAB is working with NUS to set up an elective Clinical Legal Education programme, where third and fourth-year law students will be trained to assist clinical professors in legal aid cases, I think primarily family law type cases. LAB is also participating in an SAL programme involving junior college students aspiring to study law. In addition, LAB and the Pro Bono Services Office are working with NUS and SMU to foster student interest in pro bono legal work. So with successive batches of graduating students, we will lay strong foundations to foster volunteerism in lawyers.
Encouraging Practising Lawyers to Undertake Pro Bono Work
- Now, as some lawyers, wishing to volunteer, may not know how to do so, the Pro Bono Services Office recently published a “Guide to Legal Pro Bono Opportunities” on its website. Lawyers can now choose something in line with their interests and available time.
- To better understand volunteers’ motivation, the Pro Bono Office will survey practising lawyers to gather data on their involvement in pro bono work. LAB has also gathered data from a survey of its assigned solicitors. The input collected from these surveys will be used to tailor messages and programmes to tap the volunteers’ passion more effectively.
- Now as support from employers is a key factor, the Pro Bono Office is raising awareness amongst law firms of the value of fostering a pro bono-centred Corporate Social Responsibility culture, through seminars and articles in the Singapore Law Gazette. Volunteer lawyers enable our law firms to connect better with Singaporeans on the ground, giving them a human face. Sir, some firms have responded positively; for example, their senior lawyers hold round-table discussions with the younger ones on pro-bono matters, guiding them on how best to dispense legal advice. I hope more firms and lawyers will take on pro-bono work.
- Let us move on to Mr de Souza who asks when the CPC would be amended, seeking basically for an update.
- After the Public Consultation on the draft Bill closed in February last year, MinLaw organised a series of intensive Working Group meetings with representatives from relevant government agencies, the Law Society, the Association of Criminal Lawyers, NUS, SMU, as well as a number of senior lawyers in practice. These useful sessions enabled the Working Group to study feedback received and discuss the feasibility of proposals mooted. As a result, I believe that the Bill is now a better one. Meanwhile, the Inter-Ministry Committee on Community-Based Sentences, which I chair, has been coordinating amongst the relevant Ministries on how best to implement the new CBSes, which should assure Dr Maliki that we are have been looking into how to implement them effectively.
- The review of the CPC is now complete. MinLaw will introduce the Bill in Parliament in the second quarter of this year and at that time we can have a full debate.
Community Based Sentences
- Sir, Community-Based Sentences. The CBSes, which will be introduced under the CPC, will give the courts greater flexibility to mete out appropriate sentences to punish, deter and rehabilitate offenders of less serious offences. Dr Maliki has listed them. The new ones are the MTO, the Mandatory Treatment Order, the Day Reporting Order or DRO and the Short Detention Order or SDO, whilst we are enhancing the CSO – Community Service Order or CSO and Community Works Orders or COMWO.
- Dr Maliki is correct that resources have to be geared up. We are mindful of that. Nevertheless, we do not start from scratch as the concept of the CBS is not new. Therefore we already have a platform to build on. So the new enhanced sentencing options, meaningful though they are, are part of a continuous fine-tuning of our penal system. Members will know of existing community-based rehabilitative and sentencing options which have been well-received by Singaporeans, such as the residential and halfway house schemes for drug addicts and the home detention scheme that has been introduced and enhanced. And of course the long-standing probation scheme, first for juveniles, and then extended to adults. So we will build on these experiences and expertise.
- Another point is that these sentences target low-risk offenders whom the Courts assess to be able to serve their punishment in the community under proper supervision. Hence, I do not expect community resources to be unduly strained. Indeed, this enhancing of the CBSes is a good opportunity for more volunteers and community groups to chip in. Some have done so; I hope more will do so. In fact, this COS response gives me the opportunity to get more volunteers to come onboard, whether it is pro bono work, whether it is helping young lawyers, whether it is helping out with CBSes.
- On MTOs which IMH will spearhead, there is currently already a good number of helping professionals for offenders with psychiatric disorders. In the year 2007, the Community Court formed a Resource Panel comprising volunteer agencies to help derive viable solutions and aftercare plans for offenders. In this way, therapeutic, psychiatric, and rehabilitation assistance has been provided to more than one third of the cases dealt with by the Community Court that year which included offenders with psychiatric disorders.
- Sir, on implementation and review, lead agencies have been appointed to implement the CBSes. MHA will implement the Day Reporting Order and the Short Detention Order. MCYS, the Community Service Order, and MOH, the Mandatory Treatment Order. Now I can slow down, because I am okay for time. These lead agencies will monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of these CBSes under their purview. The Inter-Ministry Committee, which I have been chairing, will retain oversight and will review our overall CBS framework holistically at an appropriate time; so there will be continual monitoring and it is work in progress.
- Sir, finally let me assure Dr Fatimah Lateef that we take a balanced approach to regulating pawnbrokers. To protect the interests of the public, we apply stringent criteria to all applicants for a pawnbroking licence and require high standards from all registered pawnbrokers, regardless of whether they run a single or a chain of pawnshops, a point that Dr Lateef makes.
- At the same time, as pawnshops are commercial entities, we give them sufficient flexibility, a point Dr Lateef also makes, to determine how they can attract customers and stay viable. Some pawnshops are run in the “traditional” way, as family-run businesses, to serve a niche neighbourhood market where customers prefer a more personal service. Some have introduced service innovations to better serve their customers. And yet others are larger pawnshops that have introduced new marketing programmes to attract new customers.
- We encourage healthy competition amongst pawnshops as it helps to improve customer service and give customers the best terms in pawn transactions. And, indeed, having more access to pawnshops is also one strategy in combating unlawful moneylending.
- Just like what we did for the Moneylenders Act, we are reviewing the Pawnbrokers Act to strengthen its provisions, to ensure that it remains relevant and that it meets the requirements of the evolving business environment.
Last updated on 26 Nov 2012