Keynote Address by Senior Minister of State for Law, Indranee Rajah, at 3rd Annual Asia Pro Bono Conference 2014
2 Oct 2014 Posted in Speeches
- WELCOME ADDRESS
Mr Lok Vi Ming, SC, President, The Law Society of Singapore
Mr Bruce Lasky, Co-Founder, BABSEA CLE
Ms Wendy Morrish, Co-Founder, BABSEA CLE
Mr Wendell Wong, Chairman, Local Organising Committee,
Members of the International and Local Organising Committee
Ladies and gentlemen
Good morning and thank you for inviting me to deliver the keynote address at the Annual Asia Pro Bono Conference 2014.
I was pleased to learn that there are over 300 delegates from over 11 countries attending the Conference this year. In particular, I would like extend a warm welcome to our overseas friends who have travelled to Singapore especially for the Conference!
- OVERVIEW OF PROGRAMME
- Just a few words on pro bono and why it’s so important. I think we universally recognise and expect that rule of law in any society is important. Why? It is important to have laws which are just, which are transparent, which are clear so that people understand the norms by which they are governed and rules by which they interact with each other.
- And of course, laws are not devoid of their context, they have to be tailored according to the needs of each country at each different stage of development. But the important thing is that you must have just, fair, transparent laws. But the best laws, the most transparent, the most fair, the most just, will still count for nothing if people do not have access to them. And that is where pro bono work comes in, because if those people who are in need of justice, cannot access it merely because they cannot afford to do so, then they are effectively shut out from all the good and all the benefits that those laws are intended to achieve.
- And it says something about the types of societies which facilitate access to justice because then, you can be sure that people in those societies feel that they have not just access, but that justice is not something which is out there as a theoretical concept, but it is real and that it touches their lives.
- And it is those who are doing pro bono in particular, lawyers, who stand in that gap and who help to bridge that gap and so, I think for those of us who have done pro bono work or are involved in it, you will understand that it is not just about volunteering, you are doing something at a much more fundamental level which is ensuring that the societies in which you live and operate and work, are fundamentally just and fair societies.
- Two years ago, the inaugural Asia Pro Bono conference in Vientiane, Laos provided a ground-breaking new opportunity for people and organisations interested in pro bono work to come together.
- This year, the Conference has a special emphasis, as you can see from its theme: “The Public Private People or PPP Vision – Creating a Vibrant Pro bono Ecosystem to Strengthen Access to Justice”.
- This PPP Vision highlights the complementary roles of the many stakeholders in pro bono work. The Government and the Courts have always played a key role in ensuring access to justice. But other stakeholders, including Bar Associations, law firms, lawyers, universities, law students and NGOs have been stepping up to contribute in ways that they are uniquely suited to do. This is a powerful development as it enables us to collectively do much more than what any one party can do.
- But how can different stakeholders with different perspectives work together? How can we collaborate to strengthen the pro bono ethos in our communities? How should we continue to enhance access to justice? These are important questions, which I am certain will be discussed during the conference.
- OBJECTIVE OF PROGAMME
- Resources are limited. As a result, pro bono programmes have to be innovative to ensure sustainability.
- A key strategy towards developing a sustainable programme is to work through PPP partnerships. Tapping on each other’s strengths, we can reap economies of scale, learn from one another’s experiences, and better coordinate our efforts. Such partnerships have the potential to create an even more vibrant pro bono ecosystem to strengthen access to justice.
Create a Vibrant Pro Bono Ecosystem
- I want to highlight a few concrete examples of strong and sustainable PPP partnerships that contribute towards a vibrant pro bono ecosystem.
- Let me start with Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia (BABSEA).
- Since 2003, BABSEA has been running Clinical Legal Education programmes with universities, the legal profession and other organisations. Through these programmes and with their partners, BABSEA helps to train the next generation of pro bono minded legal professionals. BABSEA’s partners leverage their extensive network as well as experience to train pro bono professionals.
- Pro Bono Work in Singapore
- Closer to home, I would like to share a little bit about what we have done in Singapore. This is offered in the spirit of sharing because we certainly recognize that we do not have a monopoly of knowledge on pro bono efforts and in fact I would say that we are still very much on the learning end of the curve. We have yet some way to go but in the past few years the movement in Singapore has been gaining momentum and it might be fitting if I just share some of the things we have been doing.
- Our model for delivering access to justice is based on a strong partnership between the legal community, the Law Society and the government.
The Legal Community
- The legal community has many individuals who, in their own way and time, contribute pro bono services to independent legal clinics or who volunteer with various organizations to provide legal aid. My constituency runs a legal clinic during my weekly Meet the People sessions.
Law Society Pro Bono Services Office
- However, I want to highlight in particular how the Law Society of Singapore has demonstrated leadership, and the deep and positive impact this has had on pro bono work.
- Just over 7 years ago, the Law Society of Singapore established the Pro Bono Services Office, or PBSO, as its charity arm to organise, coordinate and support its members in their pro bono work. One of their first projects was a partnership with the government and with community leaders to run Community Legal Clinics. These clinics, consisting of volunteer lawyers with practicing certificates, formed a broad-based programme providing people with basic legal advice.
- So essentially, it is almost like a triaging system because many times people, who cannot afford lawyers, have a legal problem but they are not quite able to identify the issue or they cannot articulate exactly where they should go forward with this. So the legal clinics are really the first frontline and they help people to crystallise the issue to understand what needs to be done and then refer them to the appropriate agencies who can help.
- Another of their first projects was the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, which provided legal aid for criminal cases. When the scheme was started, it was done without any funding from the government.
- Since then, the number of pro bono programmes has grown exponentially. Each one creates new channels to help the needy and marginalised in our society. With the launch of the “Justice for All Project”, PBSO will increase collaborative efforts between lawyers and other partners in the community, foundations and organisations.
The Singapore Government’s Role in Promoting Pro Bono Spirit
- Through the courts, the government also provides legal aid for capital offences, under the Legal Aid Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO).
- For civil cases, the government provides legal aid directly to deserving cases via the Legal Aid Bureau. A key part of what allows the Legal Aid Bureau to operate is its collaboration with partners, such as its Assigned Solicitors programme with lawyers from the private sector providing pro bono services. The Legal Aid Bureau also collaborates with the National University of Singapore, where students can assist with research on assigned cases under the supervision of their professor.
- Furthermore, the Singapore government has provided funding support for PBSO’s pro bono work since its inception. But we have now stepped up our commitment and support. We felt that more could be done. More should be done.
- We therefore decided to significantly step up our funding to expand PBSO’s Criminal Legal Aid Scheme. I mentioned earlier that when they first started, they did not have any funding. But we have seen the good work done by the criminal aid lawyers and we think that this is an area which deserves support.
- With this new funding, more accused persons with limited means would have access to legal assistance and representation. Furthermore, whereas lawyers doing pro bono work might have had to fork out their own money for medical reports, the government’s funding will now cover such disbursements to make sure these lawyers are not out of pocket. Our funding will also provide an honorarium as a small token of our appreciation for their contributions.
- In addition, an important priority is to inculcate a pro bono culture among our law students. It is very important that from the outset they must have that mindset, that spirit of service to the community and the understanding that law is a higher calling.
- Law students in the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Management University have to perform 20 hours of pro bono work as part of their course. We hope that this experience will help them develop empathy and encourage them to continue with the pro bono spirit even after graduation.
- To encourage our lawyers to continue with pro bono work, we are also introducing mandatory reporting of pro bono hours from 2015. We did consider the idea of making pro bono mandatory but I think there was also a strong feeling among lawyers that that takes away something from the pro bono spirit. So we thought that what we would do is make the reporting of the hours of pro bono work mandatory so we could get a sense of how much people are doing and hopefully that way, it will cause people to think and to reflect on exactly how much they are contributing and for those who are not doing any hopefully in due course, they will come forward, step up and contribute as well.
- PROGRAMME TAKE-AWAYS
- I have touched briefly on examples of the 3Ps in pro bono work, and how pro bono work in Singapore is a close partnership between lawyers, the Law Society, the government, and community organisations. I am confident you will hear of many more examples during this Conference.
- The Conference organizers have developed a full programme with extensive discussions on holistic pro bono practices and ethos development. I hope that you will keep an open mind, participate, learn, share your knowledge, and collaborate to maximise your experience at this Conference.
- This three-day Conference is also an excellent platform to get to know other key stakeholders in the different countries a little better, identify and build on existing programmes with common objectives, or develop ideas for new programmes that could extend the reach and effectiveness of our pro bono work.
- CLOSING REMARKS
- In closing, I would like to leave you with an anonymous quote about volunteer work:
“Our good works are like stones cast into the pool of time; though the stones themselves may disappear, their ripples extend to eternity.” – Anonymous
- I hope that new partnerships will grow from today’s conference, and new programmes from those partnerships. Together, we will be able to create a vibrant pro bono ecosystem to strengthen access to justice for all.
- Thank you.
Last updated on 09 Oct 2014