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Lawyers may have to report time spent on pro bono work

SINGAPORE — Lawyers may soon have to report the number of hours of pro bono work they clock each year, although it will not matter if they did none — there will be no sanctions or adverse consequences.

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SINGAPORE — Lawyers may soon have to report the number of hours of pro bono work they clock each year, although it will not matter if they did none — there will be no sanctions or adverse consequences.

The Ministry of Law (MinLaw) is asking the public for feedback about this proposed change to the Legal Profession Act, which it intends to implement next year.

This proposed requirement for lawyers’ application for practising certificates comes after some raised objections to the more stringent original idea mooted by a committee headed by Judge of Appeal V K Rajah in 2012, which made it mandatory for lawyers to complete at least 16 hours of free legal work in one year each or give contributions in lieu. Those who did not comply would have faced sanctions under that suggestion.

The idea was tweaked to suggest having lawyers set an aspirational target of pro bono hours first, with a mandatory minimum to be imposed in due course. Still, some argued against it, saying it would be a compromise on the essence of volunteerism, and added that the ethos of service should be cultivated by encouragement and education, instead of compulsion, among other things.

Responding to the announcement yesterday, some lawyers felt mandatory reporting made no difference.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said some lawyers already report their pro bono hours when they renew their practicing certificates.

While reporting is done on an individual basis, firms may take the additional step of declaring the total number of hours its lawyers spent on pro bono work in the preceding year.

Mr Singh added that he saw no purpose in having a firm-wide report on the consolidated number of hours of lawyers because legal work is “very individual” and lawyers are accountable for their own work.

When contacted, a MinLaw spokesperson said there is no “sharing” of hours allowed among the lawyers of a firm.

Another lawyer who did not wish to be named repeated concerns about minimum pro bono hours. He said it would be difficult for those working in small firms because they are already “struggling” with their workload.

Lawyer Michael Low from Crossbows LLP added: “Pro bono work has to be based on one’s conscience and not prodded.”

A joint statement from the ministry and the Law Society (LawSoc) said yesterday that the proposed move for mandatory reporting of pro bono hours, which still raised reservations, pays formal recognition to the notion that the legal community has wider responsibilities to contribute to society as well as assist those who may not have the means to access legal services.

If implemented, the data collected will allow for a better understanding of the pro bono landscape here and would also be “a first step towards greater involvement in pro bono work by the legal fraternity”.

The recommendations complement recent amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act to expand coverage of civil legal aid, as well as plans to increase funding to LawSoc for the running of its Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, the statement read.

Separately, other legislative changes proposed for the Act include the establishment of a statutory office helmed by a Director of Legal Services to oversee regulation of increasingly complex law firm structures, as well as a new Professional Conduct Council to oversee all relevant rules relating to professional conduct matters for all Singapore- and foreign-qualified lawyers practising law in Singapore.

The public consultation on the proposed amendments will run till April 11. Feedback can be emailed to MLAW_Consultation [at] A hard copy can also be mailed to the ministry.

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