A divorced mum who has trouble supporting her kids. A low-income breadwinner who was unjustifiably sacked. When Singapore’s vulnerable are feeling lost, they can seek help at free legal clinics.
It was such free legal clinics that enabled Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran to rediscover meaning as a lawyer. The chairman of Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS) recalls his volunteer stint during the late 1990s: “We were nameless volunteers, but the joy of sharing our knowledge with those feeling lost was unforgettable. That was the beginning of my pro bono journey.”
In 2007, LSPBS was set up as a six-member team under the Law Society of Singapore. Corporatised in 2017, LSPBS is now an IPC with nearly 30 staff. About 1,500 registered lawyers regularly volunteer here but it is seeking more help.
LSPBS CEO Tanguy Lim says it wants to make justice accessible to all. Project Schools, launched in 2012, has been promoting legal awareness among students through lesson plans that discuss legal topics.
“Project Schools’ full suite of eight modules help students to know the law and their rights, and also extends to gangs and rioting, cyberbullying, domestic violence as well as substance abuse and sexual offences. This suite includes learning videos and activities that allow students to gain better awareness through encouraged discussion,” shares Vijayendran.
Another initiative, LAWs@CDC, was rolled out in September 2014. A collaboration with the five community development councils, it aims to raise legal awareness among the community and address common queries at legal clinics. This is done through a series of talks in the heartlands, such as at community clubs, residents’ corners and family service centres.
“Over 14,500 needy individuals have registered with the Community Legal Clinics for legal advice on common legal issues ranging from family issues to employment matters and estate planning, since our partnership with the Community Development Councils (CDCs) started in September 2014,” says Lim. “These clinics serve Singaporeans or permanent residents living in Singapore facing a legal issue on a personal matter that is not about investments. They have never sought legal advice before and they may not be able to afford a lawyer either,” he goes on to explain.
At the end of the year, LSPBS will also launch the Family Justice Support Scheme (FJSS). This is meant to reach out to those who don’t qualify for the government’s civil legal aid scheme — this applies to middle-class citizens who don’t qualify for pro bono aid but can’t afford a private lawyer, and foreigners.
As Lim says: “Spouses or mothers with children cannot be left helpless and hopeless due to lack of citizenry or permanent residence here.” He hopes that FJSS will provide assistance to Singapore’s underserved and unserved who are struggling with a family legal crisis. To do this and more, they need more volunteers from the industry.
“Besides appreciation events and presenting an annual Pro Bono Ambassador Award, we provide specialised training. The management also thinks of meaningful ways, such as ‘makan sessions’, to develop bonding among the pro bono community (local and international),” shares Vijayendran.