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Debate on pro-bono legal work continues

SINGAPORE — The State’s role in encouraging pro-bono legal work was discussed at the start of the inaugural Law Week yesterday as the debate continued on the merits and drawbacks of making pro-bono work compulsory.

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SINGAPORE — The State’s role in encouraging pro-bono legal work was discussed at the start of the inaugural Law Week yesterday as the debate continued on the merits and drawbacks of making pro-bono work compulsory.

With social justice as one of the key aspects of pro-bono legal services, Former Law Society President Wong Meng Meng said the State has a role to play. It could contribute more money to encourage more lawyers to take on such work. Each community development council could set up a fund for constituents to get the legal support they require, for instance, the Senior Counsel said.

The issue of getting more lawyers to practise community law has garnered greater attention recently, with a third law school focusing on this area proposed in May.

A young conveyancing lawyer yesterday suggested that the Legal Aid Bureau — a department under the Law Ministry — could award lawyers assigned legal-aid cases more money to “ensure people who want to do street law can make a career out of it”.

A member of the audience at the Focus on Pro Bono Services session, suggested awarding such lawyers S$2,000 or S$2,500 for each case — above the maximum of S$1,000 in non-taxed bill they may now receive.

But Mr Wong, a speaker at the event, noted how Britain’s legal aid system — now facing spending cuts — has led to unnecessary litigation. The session’s moderator, Judge of Appeal VK Rajah, felt no “black and white answer” exists on where the role of the State begins and ends. The process of determining who to assist and where to draw the line in providing assistance is evolving, he said.

A discussion paper by the Singapore Academy of Law last October, proposing lawyers offer a minimum of 16 hours of free legal work per year, faced opposition from some quarters who felt it ran contrary to the spirit of volunteerism.

In April, the proposal for the Community Legal Services scheme was revised to instead require lawyers to report the number of pro-bono hours worked, and set an aspirational target for pro-bono hours. Feedback on the proposal closed in May.

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon told reporters yesterday that final recommendations will be out “soon”. Asked if he supported voluntary or mandatory pro-bono work, he replied feedback against mandatory pro-bono work has “led us to think that the correct approach we should take is to have an interim situation of mandatory reporting for lawyers to report their pro-bono involvement … we can then monitor the position with real, objective data and take another look at it.”

Singapore would not be unique if it decided to make pro-bono work compulsory, he noted. New York, for instance, has instituted it to take effect in 2015.

Criminal lawyer Josephus Tan’s video, featuring four pro-bono beneficiaries and aimed at encouraging more to sign up for such work, moved some among the 500-strong audience when it was played at yesterday’s session.

The lawyer, who clocked 1,700 hours of pro-bono cases last year, noted the “urgent need” for legal assistance among disadvantaged residents, but said he was willing to wait and see if moves to get more lawyers to volunteer bear fruit.

Applications to the Law Society’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme increased 13 per cent between 2010 and last year, from 1,093 to 1,237, said Senior Counsel George Lim, its pro-bono management committee member. Approved applications increased 47 per cent, from 218 in 2010 to 320 last year.

Three resources for the public were also launched yesterday by the Chief Justice: A book called Know the Law Now!, to demystify the law for the average citizen; an interactive pro-bono services directory; and a website ( for the public to pose questions and get general legal information promptly.

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