Growing skills-based volunteerism in the legal sector
Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community & Youth & Second Minister for Law at the Skills-Based Volunteerism MOU Signing Ceremony between MCCY's SG Cares Office and Law Society Pro Bono Services
15 April 2021
Mr Gregory Vijayendran SC, President of the Law Society of Singapore, and Chairman of the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS)
Mr Tanguy Lim, CEO of LSPBS
Fellow members of the Bar
Ladies and gentlemen
- Good morning.
- Very happy to join all of you today. As Greg says, this is indeed a monumental occasion and significant partnership and I am very glad to witness the signing of the MOU this morning between SG Cares Office and LSPBS.
- The MOU will see SG Cares Office partnering with LSPBS to do a few things:
a. grow the number of volunteer lawyers - we have many and I think we can always grow that space;
b. to mobilise and deploy them to the SG Cares Volunteer Centres around Singapore; and
c. to help the disadvantaged, the indigent, those who deserve legal assistance to help them with their legal needs.
Access to justice
- It is very heartening to see our legal profession step forward so readily, I am very proud to be a member of the Bar, and I regard myself still as a member of the Bar, and I am very proud to see the growth of the Pro Bono Services office and the pro bono spirit in many members of the Bar.
a. They generously and selflessly contribute both time and expertise, and I think they probably put more time and effort into pro bono work than into the regular days’ events.
b. And I think that is the hallmark of the pro bono spirit.
- Access to justice is a key cornerstone of our society. I regard this as a cornerstone principle of our legal system. It is well and good to have a strong legal system to sell to the world, to the public and international about it, but we do want to ensure that people in Singapore can access and can use and avail themselves to legal services.
a. That is what will make Singapore special and continue to grow as a society that remains inclusive.
- Every Singaporean must therefore be confident that they can seek and obtain redress through the system,
a. to ensure that it is accessible, affordable, timely and also just
b. regardless of their income level, social status, mental or physical capacity, ethnicity, race, religion. And I think all of us subscribe to that belief and philosophy.
- As our Chief Justice the Honourable Sundaresh Menon said at his first Mass Call in 2013:
a. “A visceral sense of distress sets in when society perceives that the scales of justice do not balance evenly between those who can and those who cannot access suitable legal representation.” And I think that speaks very well of the philosophy that we all share at LSPBS.
- The Government on the other hand is committed to ensuring access to justice for all, that is a key foundation of our legal policies, and balancing these scales of justice as best as we can. For example:
a. Our Legal Aid Bureau provides legal advice, legal assistance, and legal aid on civil matters, to Singapore citizens and permanent residents with limited means.
b. We are also a major funder of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) – something which was started ground-up by lawyers in 1985 through the initiative of several lawyers which grew and grew.
c. In 2015, the Government stepped in to enhance CLAS so that we can serve even more, a broader spread and ensure that the programme remains sustainable.
Pro bono legal services
- In both LAB and CLAS, it would not be possible to extend help to all eligible applicants, if not for the lawyers who offer their services at a low or no cost.
a. These are the weights with which the scales of justice can be balanced.
- What they do make a big difference to the lives of the people they have helped.
- To share a real-life story which was featured on MinLaw’s social media:
a. A man was arrested for voluntarily causing hurt.
b. At that point in time of his life,
c. His father was just diagnosed with stage four cancer;
d. His brother was jobless; and
e. His sister was just a student.
f. He went to LSPBS for help. LSPBS gave him legal assistance.
g. This lawyer through hours of selfless hard work, investigations, ploughed through documents, looked at circumstances, studied the facts, interview witnesses, eventually proved his innocence, and this man got acquitted.
h. As he said, the lawyer “changed his life”. It is not just acquittal; it is not just an avoidance of an offence, but it was life changing and meant so much to him and his family.
- I echo Greg’s deepest appreciation to all our pro bono lawyers who contributed in one way or another, big or small in many ways, and also to LSPBS.
a. If the pro bono lawyers are the weights that balance the scales, then I would say that LSPBS is the weighing pans holding these weights together. The receptacle organisation and the people who make this tick.
b. It would not be possible without the infrastructure and the support that LSPBS gives.
- LSPBS’ programmes and activities, including its law awareness initiatives and free legal clinics have grown over time and have benefitted many people on the ground, and these would continue to grow.
- With this new MOU with SG Cares Office, their good work that LSPBS has been doing will be multiplied, and this programme will allow the good work to reach out to even more through the SG Cares Volunteer Centres (VCs).
SG Cares Volunteer Centres
- There are currently 14 SG Cares VCs in operation, which will grow to 24 (i.e. one in every town) by March 2022.
- The VCs are responsible to:
a. Grow and coordinate volunteer supply;
b. Build volunteer management capabilities; and
c. Broker partnerships between demand and supply at the town level.
- I think this is an important job to ensure that the work and time is put to good use, and a good volunteer system is one which will inspire more volunteers to contribute their time.
- Legal assistance is one area which is often in demand by the community
a. Across the spectrum of different areas – usually family, often criminal, and sometimes civil.
- With LSPBS joining hands working with the VCs,
a. the needs of our residents will be better met.
b. More lives will be touched and changed – for the better.
- The Government will continue to encourage volunteerism and giving.
a. As announced during Budget 2021, we will extend the Business and IPC Partnership Scheme (BIPS) to 31 December 2023.
b. The scheme allows businesses to enjoy 250% tax deduction on wages and related expenses when they organise or support their employees to volunteer and provide services at IPCs (Institutions of a Public Character).
- To assist in this effort, we make it easier for corporates to do so. This however is just a little incentive.
- At the heart of the ethos of a volunteer, I don’t think we volunteer because of tax incentives, wages, grants and so on. We do it because this is meaningful, and the work is enjoyed by the volunteers, and because they genuinely care for Singaporeans, fellow persons on the ground to ensure that we not just say that justice is accessible but we become the means by which that justice is accessed.
a. Just like the pro bono lawyers among us today.
b. This is what makes the legal profession so special.
- To quote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the first woman on the US Supreme Court:
a. “Certainly, life as a lawyer is a bit more complex today, than it was a century ago.
b. The ever-increasing pressures of the legal marketplace, the need to bill hours, to market to clients, and to attend to the bottom line, have made fulfilling the responsibilities of community service quite difficult.
c. But public service marks the difference between a business and a profession.
d. While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession cannot.
e. It must devote itself first to the community that it is responsible to serve.
f. I can imagine no greater duty in fulfilling this obligation.
g. And I can imagine no greater pleasure.”
- I think this resonates with the work LSPBS and the many volunteer lawyers here have been doing, will do and I think will continue to do even more through this partnership with the VCs.
a. You work beyond the hours, beyond the call of duty, and take joy, real joy, in seeing someone get back on their feet with the advice that you give, and give back in the way you know best.
- Once again, let me thank all of you whether it is the LSPBS, law society or the secretariat and the many volunteers for the numerous hours that you have put in but more importantly for that dedication, the heart, and as Greg says the passion, and the compassion with which you do your work. I think this is what sets it apart, this is what makes our profession special, meaningful, and this is what it means when we say that the law is indeed a noble profession.
- Thank you very much and have a good day!