Speech by Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Law and Home Affairs, at Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office’s “Just Sing” Fund Raising Concert
6 May 2016 Posted in Speeches
Thank you for inviting me here tonight.
Good to see so many people supporting this event and I thank Law Society for organising this event to raise funds for PBSO and Legal Aid.
- Legal Aid is provided by the Government and covers 25% of Singaporeans and Permanent Residents. It has been a long held policy where the Government does not directly fund criminal legal aid. We decided that that ought to be changed and there was a change a couple of years ago.
- Law Society has always provided criminal legal aid through the CLAS scheme and we got into discussions to partner Law Society.
- So we had to find a model that would work, that will deal with the gap, the people who couldn’t afford to pay for lawyers, and at the same time, brought in the profession, got government money on the table substantially but in a way that brought in the best from the profession, inspire the profession to come in and work together. So we said let’s get the PBSO going, enhance CLAS. The gap was roughly about 6,000 litigants-in-person a year who could benefit from some form of legal representation, including basic legal advice. Of these, we estimated some 3,000 will need help in the form of unbundled services such as writing letters of representation, or full representation. So that was our thinking.
- PBSO started modestly with two legal clinics. Now it has clinics in all five districts and helps people in the heartlands. To date, these clinics have assisted over 20,000 people – very valuable. These people have a problem, they go to these clinics, they talk to them, they understand and a lot of the time, their issues are sorted out. Apart from legal clinics in the districts, PBSO also runs legal clinics in the State Courts, Family, Criminal and Civil Justice side under the Community Justice Centre. And of course, enhanced CLAS, and it conducts legal awareness programmes, talks, for charities, students and VWOs. An easy accessible way of providing these services.
- When we decided to fund CLAS, the aim was for CLAS to significantly increase the number of people it was helping. CLAS now provides basic legal advice, it gets letters of representation out, prepares mitigation pleas, defends cases and full representation.
- In 2015, the figures were quite commendable. The basic legal advice was given out to about 2,500 people and as Shen Yi said, 1,300 were represented fully in court.
- When we announced these plans two years ago, we started talking to the lawyers and said let’s do this together, there was some degree of nervousness; ‘Is this going to eat into law firms’ work? What does it mean for the smaller law firms? Are we expanding legal aid too much?’ I hadn’t expected that reaction. But I think there’s greater assurance now, that this is a good scheme and firms, lawyers, the legal profession have come together in a big way because they can see that this is a need that’s being fulfilled without cannibalising work from law firms. Those who are being helped by CLAS could not have afforded legal representation and when the number of CLAS cases went up, law firms came forward to help in a big way. It could only have succeeded with the generous contributions of the profession.
- Lawyers and firms have contributed not just money, but also time at legal clinics and legal awareness talks, and big firms and small firms, those who can afford to send their lawyers, sent them as CLAS Fellows. Firms agreed to take on hundreds of cases. It’s very heartening to see the number of firms which have come forward, take on cases and handle them, beyond contributing money, beyond sponsoring other lawyers or sending their young lawyers to become CLAS Fellows.
- When I visited CLAS, I saw young lawyers, enthusiastic, idealistic, passionate for a cause and really, I felt we should support it. I said to my people, look this is an important scheme, the Law Ministry will fully back Law Society to do this and make sure that it succeeds.
- So working together, the Government, Law Society, the profession, we can do things and do things in a way that makes sense economically, doesn’t make it a bottomless pit for the taxpayer and at the same time commits substantial funds from the Government.
- I acknowledge PBSO for the work that it has done, and the efforts of our profession. When CLAS started on this new model, with more funding, there was a surge of litigants-in-person beyond the capacity that CLAS had planned for, and the law firms came in immediately. That showed the flexibility in the profession.
- I commend the Law Society, Shen Yi and his team, for the work they have done and thank the legal profession for the support they have given.
- It is good to see corporate sponsors, students, volunteers, judiciary at this event, spreading the message, supporting it.
- Thank you everyone for your contributions.
Last updated on 13 May 2016