13 Nov 2013 Posted in Speeches
Colleagues from the Ministry of Law and the Legal Aid Bureau,
Distinguished guests from the Courts, friends from the legal profession and the social services sector,
I am delighted to join all of you to celebrate the 55th anniversary of the Legal Aid Bureau.
ORIGINS OF THE BUREAU
- The Legal Aid Bureau has come a long way since it first commenced operations 55 years ago.
- It started in 1955 with the vision, and that vision was to ensure equal access to the law for the less privileged. This led to the introduction of the first Legal Aid and Advice Bill. In the debate on the Bill in the Legislative Assembly, it was stated that “It is of little comfort to the poorer citizen that the laws of his country are fair and just and that the Courts are impartial, if in practice, he is debarred from access to the Courts through lack of funds.” It was for this purpose that the Bureau was started, and that continues to be the case today.
- Over the course of 55 years, the Bureau has provided legal aid, advice and assistance to over 300,000 applicants who would not have otherwise received such legal services. In the Financial Year 2012 alone, the Legal Aid Bureau handled 10,031 such applications.
- It is not uncommon to hear stories of how applicants’ lives have changed for the better with legal assistance provided by the Bureau.
- In one case, a family consisting of husband, wife and their daughter were sued by their neighbour for allegedly creating a noise nuisance. The family depended on the small salary of the daughter to survive and they were unable to afford a private lawyer. Also, the husband was an undischarged bankrupt. The Assigned Solicitor succeeded in reaching a settlement on the day of the trial upon which the Plaintiff agreed to discontinue the claim against the family, as well as a related claim against the husband and this could not have been achieved without the legal help provided by the Bureau to the family and this is just one of the many cases which have benefited from legal aid.
THE BUREAU’S STAFF
- With the Bureau’s caseload, it is critical that it has a strong and committed team to assist its applicants. The Bureau has come a long way from the initial team of just 15 staff in 1958 to its present size of more than 70 employees, comprising customer service officers, legal support officers and administrative and finance staff.
- Most of the Bureau’s cases are handled by the 15 legal officers in the Bureau, with the support of the legal executives and the legal assistants.
- Many of them have remained with the Bureau for over 10 years. We are privileged to have these long-serving individuals, such as Senior Deputy Director Mr Louis D’Souza, Legal Executive Ms Intan Salim and Manager of External Assignment Unit Ms Prema Nadesan, who are able to share with new officers their knowledge as well as their spirit of service. I understand that Louis D’Souza encourages his colleagues to, he said: ‘Picture yourself in the other person’s shoes, and then ask yourself how you would want to be treated if you were them. Then you can’t go wrong’. This spirit of compassion is also very much evident in the younger officers who have joined the Bureau, such as Assistant Director Goh Kiat Yi, who said that he draws inspiration from the fact that the work in the Bureau has positive ramifications on the lives of his clients and their loved ones. With such dedicated and committed staff, I am sure that the Bureau will continue to carry out its mission faithfully for many more years to come.
THE ASSIGNED SOLICITORS
- Throughout the years, it would not have been possible for the Bureau to handle its caseload without the Assigned Solicitor scheme, which was set up to encourage the Bar to play an active role in helping the underprivileged. Today, I understand about 33 per cent of the Bureau’s cases are handled by Assigned Solicitors.
- Many of our Assigned Solicitors have been involved in the Bureau’s work for more than 20 years. I would like to highlight in particular Mr V Ramakrishnan, who has been on board since the late 1960s, Ms Belinda Tan, who accepted her first legal aid case in the 1980s, and Ms Noor Lila Abdul Hamid, who started her journey in 1993. Many have continued to serve the Bureau’s applicants at the expense of their personal time and resources which could otherwise have been spent on private clients. At times, the clients of our Assigned Solicitors can be difficult and demanding, and they may not cooperate fully with their Assigned Solicitors in order to advance their cases.
- Despite these challenges, I am very much encouraged by the conviction of individuals such as Ms Lim May Li, an Assigned Solicitor of more than 15 years, who I am told stayed on as an Assigned Solicitor as she feels strongly that there are many who still need help. I am also extremely gratified to hear how Assigned Solicitors themselves have learnt from their pro bono experiences, like Ms Hawa Zinat Jailani who said that, ‘My pro bono experience has given me the opportunity to reshape the lives of others and mine.’
- We have many of our Assigned Solicitors here tonight, and I salute all of you for your dedication and commitment in helping those who are in need of legal aid. Your generosity has inspired and will continue to inspire future generations of lawyers to come.
- And as you know of course, we’re working as a Ministry to encourage the pro bono spirit amongst law students as well as lawyers, and what you have done sets a shining example for them.
- As we reflect on how far the Bureau has come since 1958, we are also aware of how much more needs to be done for the Bureau to remain true to its vision and mission.
- The highlight for the Bureau this year was, without doubt, the amendments to the Legal Aid and Advice Act which took effect on 1 July. That was my first bill that I moved in Parliament by the way, so I shall always remember that.
- With these amendments, an additional 300,000 people will now benefit under the legal aid scheme.
- As the Bureau prepares to handle the expected increase in the cases, the continued support of the Assigned Solicitors remains crucial.
- I would also like to take this opportunity to commend THK Family Service Centre @ Tanjong Pagar for their continuing support of the Bureau’s work, as they have provided on-site counselling to the Bureau’s applicants under the Give Another Lifeline Project since 2003. This on-site counselling service complements the legal services provided by the Bureau by giving applicants much needed emotional support at critical times. I’m also an indirect beneficiary since the Tanjong Pagar area is my constituency. As long as they help take care of my clients, that helps my work load as well.
- I am confident that, with the continued strong support from its partners, the Bureau will continue to play a critical role in ensuring access to justice for those in our society who have limited financial means.
- In closing, I would like to congratulate the Legal Aid Bureau on its 55th anniversary and thank everyone of you here tonight who has helped to make the Bureau what it is today. The dinner tonight is just a very small gesture of our appreciation for your invaluable assistance.
- Thank you very much.
Last updated on 13 Nov 2013