For a period after her divorce two years ago, Sharon was missing her infant daughter terribly.
The 25-year-old mother, who works in the education industry, was only allowed to see her daughter once a week as her ex-husband was granted custody. Unable to afford a lawyer, Sharon was at her wits’ end on finding ways to see her daughter more often.
“Almost everyday I see children and I’m always thinking about my own daughter, it was very upsetting for me…I felt that (for) a two-year-old, a mother is very important but I can only see her once in a week, which is not enough,” Sharon told Yahoo News Singapore recently.
On her mother’s advice, Sharon applied for pro bono legal aid and was assigned to 28-year-old family lawyer Low Seow Ling, who managed to help Sharon get joint custody of her daughter. Sharon can now see her daughter for the same amount of time as her ex-husband does.
“I was still studying. Without legal aid, I won’t have been able to manage,” said Sharon.
For Sharon and others who need legal services but can’t afford them, the different types of pro bono services provided by lawyers ensure that they have adequate recourse to justice. There are currently around 400 lawyers in private practice who handle 75 per cent of the pro bono cases under the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas), which is run by the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office. The remaining cases are taken on by lawyers who work full-time for Clas.
And more young lawyers like Low are joining the ranks to provide these services including giving law awareness talks, providing free consultation services in the heartlands, and representing clients in court.
Law Society Pro Bono Services Chief Executive, Lim Tanguy, 48, said that he has seen more young lawyers – those in their 20s to early 30s – taking on Clas assignments and signing up as volunteers for legal clinics.
He attributed the trend to greater emphasis by the legal fraternity on pro bono work at the tertiary level while potential lawyers are still schooling. This has made the younger generation “more aware of the needs of the poorer in society and… attuned to the fact that as lawyers, they have a privilege which allows them to give back to society in the form of pro bono,” said Lim.
Helping the less fortunate
The lawyers that Yahoo News Singapore spoke to – who are aged between 26 and 31 – cited both professional and personal reasons for providing free legal services. They said pro bono cases offer different challenges and personal gratification to them, while those who join Clas add that it is a good stepping stone into criminal law.
To Low, who works at Eden Law Corporation, pro bono work adds meaning to her job.
“The reality is that help is aplenty for people who can pay…so I want to be available to give the needy a choice,” she said. “Even though (pro bono) takes up a lot of time from paid work…that is what makes me think that this practice of law is meaningful.”
Clas currently has seven lawyers – five fellows and two advocates – who provide full-time pro bono services. All Clas lawyers only handle cases of single applicants who have a disposable income or assets of no more than $10,000. If the applicant is married, the spouse’s income will also be taken into account as well.
Ariel Lim, who was handling intellectual property (IP) cases at a private firm before Clas, said that her parents sparked her interest in social welfare issues, which spurred her to do pro bono work.
Lim, a 26-year-old Clas fellow who joined in January, said of her experience, “It challenges me not just intellectually but I’m also forced to think about moral questions, forced to apply my mind to alleviate the suffering of another fellow human being.”
Another Clas lawyer, Khadijah Yasin, said that the Clas scheme was a way for her to enter criminal law. The 32-year-old specialised in IP law in her previous two firms.
“I’ve always been interested in criminal law over the years when I started going into the work. I wanted to volunteer for legal clinics but was concerned that I did not have pre-requisite legal knowledge to assist people who visited (the clinics). So when I saw this Clas opportunity… I decided to apply to see if I would make it,” she said.
The guidance given by senior lawyers in Clas is invaluable for inexperienced lawyers to learn more about criminal law, she said, adding that the scheme gave her the confidence to advise people about the law in legal clinics.
Giving young lawyers wider perspective
Another fellow Wilson Foo, 30, was influenced by the experience of a friend who was serving national service when he committed an offence. The friend did not have a lawyer to act for him and was sentenced to a week in detention barracks. “I felt that he was not able to advance his own case well because he was unrepresented,” said Foo.
The absence of legal representation is not just an issue for defendants, particularly for those who are uneducated, but also for other parties involved in a case, Foo said.
“It is also a problem for the courts and the prosecution because (the defendants) don’t know what they are doing so they’re going in blind and not doing anything to help the justice process,” he added.
One of Foo’s clients, Ali, was a private hire car driver and part-time cameraman who faced three charges of breaching a personal protection order filed by his ex-wife. The prosecution had pushed for Ali to be electronically tagged, which would have affected the hours that he could work.
Foo constantly reassured Ali about his legal rights and put in much effort and time for his case, according to Ali. With the lawyer’s help, Ali was sentenced to 90 hours of community service and ordered to go for counselling. Ali said, “Initially I thought lawyer will be free lawyer… I thought they don’t really give much attention, but I was wrong.”
Summing up his experience in pro bono work, Foo said, “I feel that it has given me a wider perspective. It has also made me wonder why some of them seem to be unable to crawl out of a pit and end up in a cycle of continuous reoffending.
“And I hope that there is some solution which can be found to help these people – not just punish them – and get them out of this vicious cycle which they seem to be in.”