It is often thought that if one is truly innocent, one has nothing to fear from the legal process. An innocent accused only needs to tell his or her side of the story truthfully. Legal representation may not be necessary. This is not true. Many confess to crimes they did not commit, many are confused by the unfamiliar legal process, and mistakes may be made during investigations.
In Malaysia and Singapore, there has been increased debate on pro bono and criminal legal representation. Presently, both authorities provide criminal legal representation for capital cases. For other offences, legal aid is provided through pro bono schemes run by the legal bar and lawyers. The Malaysian government is working on a general criminal legal aid plan, and Singapore’s leaders have recently emphasised the need to promote pro bono work among lawyers.
Such an emphasis on pro bono is inspiring; it reflects a commitment to the less fortunate in society. However, it may also be time to consider the need for State-run or State-funded criminal legal aid schemes. Access to criminal legal representation is too important to be left to self-help or private initiatives alone. Due to the potentially serious consequences and social stigma resulting from a criminal conviction, the State should serve as guarantor of an accused person’s right to legal representation in all criminal matters. In doing so, the State sends the message that it stands alongside the accused person, even as it calls the latter to account.