6 Oct 2010 Posted in Speeches
Professor Tan Cheng Han,
NUS colleagues and students,
- I am happy to join you today to witness the signing of this MOU between the NUS Faculty of Law and the Legal Aid Bureau to launch a Clinical Legal Education or CLE programme. I understand that this programme, in this form, is the first of its kind in Singapore. It gives law students an opportunity to obtain hands-on legal experience in serving the less privileged in our community. Your presence is an affirmation that law students today are willing to do their bit for society in a meaningful way. Indeed, I am especially pleased to support this event because when I taught here at the Law Faculty many years ago, I had an interest in consumer law. Inspired by my experience at the Harvard Law School where I had spent a year, I had always felt that students should get out into the marketplace to do some hands-on work,
Importance of Clinical Legal Education
- What is clinical legal education? It is a way of learning that goes beyond text-books. Through it, the law comes to life – the case-studies and examination problems are real. Just as you cannot learn how to swim just by reading a book, likewise, you cannot learn how to effectively handle a legal case just by being in a classroom. You have to talk to actual clients, analyze what their problem is, think through possible solutions, decide what you as a lawyer can do to help and then plunge in to render that help. In other words, there is transactional analysis at play. Medical students have to undertake clinical work as part of their training so that they can be effective house officers and proficient medical practitioners. The CLE programme aims to give law students such practical training, giving you a “sneak preview” of what practice is like. Under the mentorship of NUS lecturers and officers from the Legal Aid Bureau, you will be helping in the Bureau’s cases, and something which I am sure you will appreciate, earning course credit while doing so. Most of these cases will be in family-related matters.
- Some of you may be asking yourselves: Why do I need a sneak preview when I am going to spend the rest of my career practising law? There are a few good reasons.
- Firstly, the practice of law is very wide. Do you want to be a litigator or a corporate lawyer? What area of law are you interested in, indeed, may intuitively be good in? Commercial law? Family law? Criminal Law? What kind of clients do you enjoy interacting with? Banks and institutions? Hard-pressed individuals? The CLE programme will give you an insight into what a particular kind of legal practice is like – the kind of practice that serves the man in the street.
- Secondly, you will get the chance to draft court documents and opinions, conduct client interviews, attend court hearings and interact with legal officers. You will be trained in case management as well as mediation and communication skills. These are all valuable practical experiences which will stand you in good stead when you start work, no matter what area of law you go into.
- Thirdly, and most importantly, you will have the privilege of interacting with clients who truly need your help. This means that you, even as a law student, will have the chance to make a positive difference in someone’s life. Everything you do on the programme will actually matter to someone, since you are dealing with real clients and real cases. How often in life can we have the feeling that what we do is meaningful, and make a positive difference to another human being? As you go out into the working world, jostling and competing with everyone else who is trying to make a living, and fighting to get the best deal they can out of everything, you will realize that the opportunity to be the one helping someone else is in fact a great privilege, and should be seized with both hands.
- In your work in the programme you may come across quite a few clients who are uneducated and illiterate. You may hear stories of how daily life is a struggle to make ends meet. You may hear stories which are so sad that they will make you reflect on how privileged your own life is. But you will not have to be a passive listener. You can play a part in the story, using your legal training and skills to uplift another person’s life and help him or her gain access to justice.
- As a former law teacher who is now very much involved in helping people at my Meet the People sessions, I can tell you that these are very good reasons to sign up for the programme. I am sure those who have already gone through the programme, in its pilot phase, share these sentiments.
Pro Bono Legal Work
- Let me share a story with you, to illustrate the impact which you can make while you are on the CLE programme. This is based on an actual case done by the Legal Aid Bureau. There was this married lady, a production operator. She stood by her husband for 24 years, even after he had been sent to jail three times. The last straw came when her husband attacked her with a chopper and poured hot water on her, leaving her skull fractured in several places and with multiple cuts and burns all over her body. She decided to divorce him and came to the Bureau for help. The Bureau helped her to get her divorce from the man who had abused her so savagely, and to sort out her ancillary matters.
- Now, imagine that this case had been assigned to you. Under your clinical instructor’s supervision, you will be able to do actual legal work to help the applicant, by taking instructions, drafting the court papers, doing written submissions, and taking notes at the hearing. Some of you here may feel that working on family law cases may not have the glamour of more lucrative practice areas such as corporate law and arbitration. But I will say that the sense of satisfaction you get when you serve your client’s cause well is probably far greater.
- Indeed, pro bono legal work is a two-way street. Not only will you better appreciate the legal problems that the man in the street may face, many with their own stories to tell – some bittersweet, some tragic, some heart-warming, and occasionally, triumphant - you will derive rewards of the heart which cannot be measured in dollars and cents. .
- I am hopeful that those of you on the programme, and your classmates, will follow in the footsteps of many volunteer lawyers who have served the less privileged so well in the past, including those who help the Legal Aid Bureau as assigned solicitors. Currently, there are more than 200 such active volunteer lawyers. They take on the Bureau’s cases, giving them the same time, effort and energy as their private cases. Take the example of Ms. Linda Tay who is one of the Legal Aid Bureau’s most dedicated assigned solicitors.
- LAB had assigned Ms Tay a case which involved a man who had two children with his first wife and more with his second. The first wife wanted more maintenance, but the man was so poor that the children from his second marriage barely had enough to eat. In desperation, he tried to gas himself and his family to death in their flat. They were rescued in time. Ms Tay got the maintenance variation application dismissed and social workers helped the man and his second family to get back on their feet. Sometime later, Ms Tay met the man and his children on the train. He turned to his children and said: “This is the lawyer who helped Daddy. Say thank you to her.” I commend Ms Tay for her sterling work for this case, which made a positive difference not just to her client, but to his family as well.
- Other volunteers I would pay tribute to are the lawyers who serve on Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) administered by the Law Society and at the Community Legal Clinics, jointly administered by the Law Society and the Ministry of Law. I also want to commend law students in Pro Bono Group at both the NUS and SMU whom I have met at various functions. Their enthusiasm is infectious and very heartwarming. My hope is that when many in each year’s batch of graduating law students are infused with this pro-bono spirit, in time, we will have our younger lawyers as part of a vanguard inspiring their older colleagues to do more.
- In closing, my congratulations once again to the NUS Law Faculty and the Legal Aid Bureau, whose collaborative efforts will, I am sure, strengthen the pro-bono spirit in our next generation of lawyers. Also, my thanks go to the lecturers and LAB officers for mentoring the students. I wish this pioneering programme in clinical legal education every success. May it grow from strength to strength.
Annex: Joint NUS-LAB Press Release on the MOU(0.09MB)
Last updated on 02 Dec 2012