LAWYERS who do pro bono work for the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) will be paid an honorarium for the first time.

The token fees would amount to a few hundred dollars for each case and be scaled according to several factors, such as whether the case goes to trial, said Mr Tanguy Lim, director of Pro Bono Services at the Law Society, which administers the CLAS.

Lawyers who volunteer with the Legal Aid Bureau, which deals with civil cases, and Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences already receive honoraria for their pro bono work.

The increased funding for criminal legal aid is part of the Government and Law Society's efforts to expand the scheme.

It currently benefits some 400 individuals each year. However, the society hopes up to 6,000 each year would eventually benefit.

Details are still being finalised but the Law Society said the changes would start "soon".

Mr Lim noted the fee is just a token to recognise the efforts of volunteer lawyers and a fraction of actual legal fees.

Currently, about 30 to 40 per cent of the 4,600 lawyers here do pro bono work.

It is hoped these numbers will increase when the new measures kick in.

"With this new funding, more accused persons with limited means would have access to legal assistance and representation," said Senior Minister of State for Education and Law Indranee Rajah at the annual Asia Pro Bono Conference held yesterday.

She said that government funds would also cover costs needed for obtaining documents such as medical reports.

Pro bono lawyers here welcomed the move.

"Most of the people doing pro bono work are from small law firms and this token will be helpful," said Mr Tan Cheow Hung, director of Beacon Law Corporation, though he noted the true motivations for pro bono work still had to come from a sense of empathy or social responsibility.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan, who is also the pro bono ambassador of the Law Society, said: "Even if the fee is not a few hundred dollars, if it's just $50 or $100, it's an appreciative gesture and I welcome it."

Some lawyers argue a monetary token would not be in the spirit of pro bono work, but Mr Tan said that those who felt this way could always donate the money to other charitable endeavours.

"Why not take the money from one good cause and put it in another? This is a win-win situation," said Mr Tan.