Pro Bono: A Possible Resolution to Equal Access to Justice
It is with great pleasure that I congratulate and welcome all of you to our noble profession. You should take pride in all the accomplishments that have brought you to this day. I am certain that all of you would be excited to embark on the different journeys that the legal fraternity has to offer. Wherever this journey takes you, there is one common objective that we as lawyers must share: equal access to justice.
Equal access to justice is one of the fundamental concerns faced by Singapore’s legal system. Broadly, the notion of access to justice entails individuals being able to access the courts, the judicial remedies therein and consequent legal representation. However, this notion may be a pipe dream for the underprivileged and the marginalised in our society who face a variety of issues, inter alia, being unable to afford legal advice and representation.
Social Contract to Render Pro Bono
As lawyers, we possess exclusive power to intercede on behalf of another, not only to plead before the courts, but to advise and counsel our fellowmen of society in all legal matters. A case can be made that possessing such powers establishes a social contract between us and society wherein it creates an inherent responsibility for lawyers to provide assistance to the disadvantaged.
With the goal of achieving equal access to justice, Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS), a registered charity and Institution of Public Character, is an initiative by the Law Society of Singapore (the Law Society) to bring free legal assistance to those in need as part of the Law Society’s greater mission to ensure access to justice for all. LSPBS organises various programmes to (a) serve the community; (b) support its volunteers; and (c) assist or collaborate on pro bono initiatives with other agencies. LSPBS has produced several brilliant schemes and sub-organisations to assist the under-privileged. However, these schemes require active participants, and your invaluable contribution would play a huge role in achieving this goal.
The Benefits of Pro Bono Service
Clients often prefer interactions with senior lawyers. It is on rare occasions that junior lawyers take on matters as lead counsel. Experiential learning, as far as managing cases by oneself, is not an opportunity that many young lawyers are provided with. Therefore, by engaging in pro bono, it not only creates a wealth of learning experience, but also enables young lawyers to interact directly with clients, creating unique opportunities to see first-hand the utility of their position as lawyers. With that being said, we must remember to remain sombre to the fact that quality service is paramount.
For those who find themselves craving for complex matters, pro bono work also provides you with an opportunity to assist senior lawyers in complex cases. Apart from the exposure you get at your firm, working with different senior lawyers allows you to observe and learn different skills or different ways of handling an issue.
For those who are not practising but wish to be a part of pro bono work, section 3 of the Legal Profession (Pro Bono Legal Services) Rules 2013 provides an exception for non-practising lawyers to render pro bono services under schemes initiated by the Law Society or the State Courts. This means non-practising lawyers can equally render their services under any one or more of the schemes save for being able to appear in the courts.
Is Any Assistance Provided?
It is not uncommon for young lawyers to feel anxious about handling cases on their own. Depending on the type of pro bono work you choose to do, the relevant organisation will assign you cases according to your level of experience. Rest assured, receiving an assignment means you can and are deemed to be able to handle the complexity present in that case.
Further, LSPBS provides courses which are tailored for both pro bono and practice in general. For example, the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) has set up a 23-module training programme which spans from July till December every year. These courses are conducted by some of the most outstanding legal luminaries and the learning that one can derive from them is unparalleled. Each module is catered to provide an in-depth understanding of the various aspects of criminal law and procedure.
The Pro Bono Schemes
CLAS offers legal representation to the less privileged. For those who are interested, CLAS will provide its volunteers with the brief facts of the allegations, the client’s brief instructions and other pertinent information that will aid you in deciding which case you wish to undertake.
Project Law Help provides assistance to community organisations for non-litigious commercial matters. By and large, these organisations comprise charities, voluntary welfare organisations and social enterprises which are dedicated to serving our community’s needs.
Community Legal Clinics entails providing advice to individuals for personal legal issues affecting the less privileged. The legal clinic covers a spectrum of legal issues and volunteers can choose which area of law they wish to provide advice on. Prior to the session, volunteers will be provided with the case synopsis so that they are prepared with the relevant information to advise.
Volunteers are free to choose one or more of the schemes to render their service. It is not necessary for you to provide services in line with your practice area. You are only required to possess the requisite knowledge of the intended subject area and you are free to undertake those assignments. To find out more about the schemes and those that are not mentioned herein, please visit https://www.lawsocprobono.org/Pages/volunteer-Schemes.aspx . Alternatively you may e-mail [email protected].
In the first few days of being called to the Bar, I signed up to offer my service with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) and I have since been an active member. In one of my more memorable CLAS assignments, I met a young man (my client) and his father. He was charged with causing hurt to two police officers at a MRT station. During my interaction with my client, he readily informed me that he was prepared to take a certain cause of action. However, I found that there was something peculiar about him. When I posed questions, he would speak under his breath and would remain silent for a second or two before answering. It appeared to me as though he was speaking to someone else before he answered my questions.
At the end of the meeting, I spoke to his father in private to better understand my client’s behaviour. He informed me that his son was into spiritual practices, and thought that his son can “speak to spirits”. Naturally, I enquired further into why his father had formed such an opinion. His father’s information and my observation of my client led me to understand that he might be suffering from a psychiatric condition.
CLAS readily accepted my request to bear the total costs for a psychiatric evaluation. True to my suspicions, my client was diagnosed with schizophrenia and the report indicated that he was labouring under the mental disorder at the material time of the offence. The report provided me with the necessary foundation to submit to the Court for a Mandatory Treatment Order, which was eventually ordered.
It is because of CLAS that my client was able to receive legal representation. If he had pleaded guilty without having sought assistance, there is a possibility that the Court would not have been apprised of his psychiatric condition thereby closing the door to the most apt sentencing regime that would benefit him by addressing the root concern rather than bundling him to prison. There are many like this gentleman who would greatly benefit from legal advice and representation.
Although absolute access to justice may seem utopian, the power to bridge the disparity that lies within the system rests in performing pro bono services. It is my view that we as lawyers are collectively responsible in the pursuit to achieve equal access to justice for all. We should not underestimate our role in rendering pro bono service – every contribution plays a significant role in the lives of the people who require our assistance and in achieving the greater goal. With that, I wish all of you a rewarding and fulfilling career ahead.