More than 95% of all criminal, civil, family and juvenile cases in Singapore are heard before the District Courts and Magistrate’s Courts of the Subordinate Courts of Singapore. Singapore has limited legal aid scheme. A majority of litigants do not qualify for legal aid. Hence large numbers of indigent litigants in the court proceedings are self-represented, without professional legal representation. For instance, in 2010, about 80% of divorce cases involved defendants without legal representation and 100% of respondents in maintenance and family violence cases were similarly unrepresented. During the same period, 97% of complainants in maintenance cases involving women and their dependent children were unrepresented and many more appeared in court without a lawyer in family violence cases. In the criminal courts, 41% of accused persons, many of whom faced charges for serious offences such as drug trafficking and possession, and violent offences were without counsel at the pre-trial stage. As can be seen, a very large group of people may not fully appreciate their legal rights. When an unrepresented litigant faces a legally represented litigant there is an apparent imbalance of power during the proceedings
Ensuring that members in this significant group are able to present their case, know their legal rights, follow proceedings and understand judicial rulings in their cases is essential. Without assistance being given, this group is at a significant disadvantage and would be deprived of effective and quality access to justice. Because of the litigant-In-Person’s inability to fully understand and participate in court proceedings, his case may be undermined, hence compromising the delivery of justice.
There is hence this large group of litigants and accused persons who traverse the complicated legal and judicial system without legal representation as they do not qualify for state-funded legal aid, and at the same time cannot afford legal representation. As a result, those in this “sandwiched” social class - many of these Litigants-In-Persons (LIPs) only have secondary school qualifications according to a survey conducted by the Subordinate Courts in 2010 - are forced to go to court alone, facing unfamiliar court procedures whilst having to deal with highly personal and emotionally sensitive issues which can or (as is more often the case) cannot be properly addressed through legal recourse.
In addition to this sandwiched social class, many litigants choose to self-represent. Although most in this latter group are capable of self-representation, without legal training, it cannot be expected of them to be as familiar with the rules of court as counsel are trained to be. Problems arose as these LIPs were unable to put their best case forward according to the rules of court and did not know the legal principles to which applied to their case. Many confused their roles as witnesses with their roles as advocates for their case, and vice versa.
Fundamentally, there were ever more challenges arising for judges, court administrators, prosecutors and lawyers alike when dealing with cases involving such LIPs. The real test for the judge was to be able to explain these often alien and complicated rules of court and legal principles to the LIPs whilst maintaining balance and fairness to all parties in a proceeding and without being seen to be anything but impartial. Without such guidance, criminal proceedings risk sanctions affecting life and liberty, family law cases may affect the welfare of children, and civil processes could be difficult to navigate as they tend to be lawyer-centred.
These concerns culminated in questions over the quality and true level of access to justice, as well as the delivery of the same, and a solution had to be found to empower these LIPs in order to level the playing field for them in the justice process.