24 April 2018
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Self-representing in court? Shew is here to help

Straits Times
14 Apr 2018
Lee Wen-Yi

When Sheila was 33, her husband died from cancer, leaving her the sole breadwinner for her mother, sick grandmother and two children.

When her grandmother's health turned for the worse and died in 2016, Sheila (not her real name) struggled with the medical bills and funeral costs, and misappropriated funds in an attempt to pay off her debts.

Last year, she was charged in court but did not have the money to hire a lawyer. She was eventually represented by one under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which helped reduce her jail term from five months to three.

But Sheila was worried about how her family would cope. This was where the Community Justice Centre (CJC) played a key role by providing assistance to tide her family over during that period.

Now 44 and released after a month for good behaviour, she has found a job as a cashier and is able to support her family. "I was broken down but CJC gave me courage," she said, recounting the support and encouragement she received.

Sheila is one of the thousands of people who have benefited from the non-governmental organisation (NGO), which provides non-legal assistance such as interim financial support and food vouchers, in collaboration with organisations such as Comcare, and makes referrals to social service agencies for longer-term support.

CJC also dispenses basic legal advice on-site at the State and Supreme Courts through its On-Site Legal Advice Scheme.

Yesterday, the NGO took its activities one step further, launching a new resource to help people who are representing themselves in court, or litigants-in-person, during its fifth-anniversary dinner at the Sentosa Golf Club.

Self-Help eWeb (Shew) features an automated court document assembler (ACDA), which guides users through key court procedures in areas such as bankruptcy, and helps generate the appropriate application form based on answers to a few basic questions.

Other modules now available in the ACDA are deputyship and mitigation pleas. Shew also has a chatbot that gives basic legal information for certain matters.

In addition, the system uses business intelligence to try and analyse the trends of legal issues, which guides decisions on future programmes, said Mr Leonard Lee, CJC's executive director.

Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law Indranee Rajah said at yesterday's launch: "Shew is in line with the national push towards becoming a Smart Nation. By harnessing technology to improve your operational efficiency, you are delivering better services to litigants-in-person."

CJC, which began in 2012, has grown its outreach from fewer than 10,000 in its first year to 17,000 court users last year.

The NGO, run by a team of just 15 members, relies largely on about 600 to 700 volunteers and looks for innovative ways to expedite and improve its services. Shew is one such example.

"Due to budgetary constraints, we cannot hire a lot of people and while we have strong support from volunteers, we need to actively leverage technology for us to be effective, to strengthen our capacity and fulfil our mission," Mr Lee said.

More than $600,000 was raised by the NGO in conjunction with the dinner yesterday, including a charity golf tournament.

Source: Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. Permission required for reproduction.