SINGAPORE: The Law Society is paving the way for "a full buffet spread" of pro bono services.
Its President Lok Vi Ming said currently, about 30 to 40 per cent of its more than 4,000 lawyers are involved in pro bono work.
But he hopes in time to come, two out of every three lawyers will actively volunteer their services.
And the Senior Counsel is confident as "the benefits and call for pro bono is really ringing out loud".
The idea is to make legal help available to the people who really need it.
But there’s been criticism of a recent proposal for lawyers to clock at least 16 compulsory hours of free legal service a year.
Some said the move has started to affect legal education, given that a mandatory pro bono scheme will be included in the law curriculum.
Law Society President Lok Vi Ming acknowledges that it may be difficult from a practical point of view, but believes lawyers can come round to the idea.
He said: "If you look at it from a practical point of view, people are busy, people have things to do and there are important things to do in their lives, you sometimes need a little nudge to want to do something different in your life. The idea of pro bono is something that is quite new to a good number of lawyers, if statistics are anything to go by.
"We always have our pool of ready and very loyal and faithful supporters in our pro bono schemes, but we also have a large group of lawyers for whom pro bono is something, I would not say they would not want to do, (but) it’s something that’s new to them.
"I think the trick is applying the right amount of encouragement and persuasion to getting this started.
"I think one of the ways is to continue talking about pro bono work. I think when enough people talk about pro bono work, and just how satisfying this is, and how the giver of pro bono services can actually find encouragement and find some sort of real tangible return in terms of professional contentment in his or her own self, then I think this idea of pro bono, continues to take on relevance, can be aspirational to the members of the profession."
Another way is to enlarge the base and the scope of legal services it can offer so lawyers of different specialty can contribute.
Mr Lok said: "So if you limit it just to, say, criminal law, pro bono services, then that’s really going to effectively cut out a number of lawyers who are probably not confident enough to give criminal legal assistance because they see this as maybe quite serious and quite specialised. What we’ve tried to do is to expand it to other areas — we give assistance to non—profit organisations to help them set up some of these charities and then we have the idea of the pro bono legal clinics."
But Mr Lok noted that the key question is how fast the society wants to get there and how it intends to sustain the results.
Mr Lok said the success of the pro bono schemes hinge on several factors including the scope of services put out and the take up rates of new initiatives.
But the bottom line is, he said: "If we can ever come to a time, a point, where a person’s career is considered successful, not only by the number of cases he won in court or how much money he makes in a particular year, what kind of car he drives, but really, whether or not this guy has distinguished himself or herself in the service of other people.
"I think when we come to that point where society regards as an indication of success, just how much pro bono work is done by a particular lawyer, then I think we would have achieved really an incremental change in the whole way in which pro bono is viewed, by the lawyer himself, by the firms and by the society."
So what kind of pro bono work has he done?
Well, Mr Lok said he has taken part in the pro bono legal clinics his firm organised, while the rest of his time is spent "running around law society work".
Which explains why he said he is a proponent of having a definition of free legal work that it’s "quite inclusive".
"I think involvement in law society work and community work can be considered in the form of pro bono. In fact, what we want to do is try and encourage lawyers to accept that as quite a high form of pro bono work. It’s service for your fellow lawyers and fellow practitioners, without the promise or the expectation of financial reward in return."
Besides free legal service, another area of focus is to improve communication between the Council and its members.
During the hour—long interview, Mr Lok spoke of engaging its members through regular, informal lunches and having greater interaction with the heads of the various committees under the society.
This, as one of the roles of the organisation is to represent the profession, to present feedback on how laws may be tightened of changed.
The shift in the law society’s communication policy follows the clash between the organisation and lawyer M Ravi.
The clash started after one of the Law Society’s members, Mr Wong Siew Hong, appeared in the High Court in July on three occasions to present a letter allegedly written by Mr Ravi’s psychiatrist.
The letter, which stated that Mr Ravi was unfit to practise due to a relapse of bipolar disorder, was presented during the Hougang by—election case.
Mr Ravi then sued the society and Mr Wong for defamation.
He also filed a motion to expel the Law Society’s council members.
But Mr Ravi discontinued the law suits last year.
Members expressed their unhappiness that they were kept in the dark on the matter and demanded an explanation from the Council.
The matter was later resolved.
When asked about the key lesson from this sage, Mr Lok said it’s expected that from time to time, there’ll be episodes with members who may need clarification, or need to be handled in a particular way, but there has to be effective communication.
He said: "Certain information needs to get out to members and one has to do this in accordance with the prevailing circumstances of each particular case and event. Sometimes it may need to go out faster, sometimes you may need to say more, sometimes you need not go out that fast, and need not say that much. But above all, we know that there’s a need for information to go out and to go out accurately."
Mr Lok said he is looking to understand the issues and concerns of his members better. And while he may not be able to address all of them, he said he is personally interested to know, which is a refreshing change.
"Personally, I enjoy interacting with people. I look to establish relationships in the things I do and so I would like to be able to understand some of the issues and concerns of the members better. I can’t say that we would be able to solve or to address all these concerns better than we have done in the past, but I’m personally interested to know."
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