Enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme officially launched

SINGAPORE - The enhanced Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas) was officially launched on Monday to provide the poor with greater access to justice.

The scheme is run by the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office, and provides help to those unable to afford a lawyer. The Government has pledged up to $3.5 million a year to fund the enhanced scheme, which also features other initiatives such as an honorarium to volunteer lawyers who do pro bono work.

Three lawyers tell The Straits Times about their involvement in Clas.

1. Mr Abraham Vergis, 41, managing director of Providence Law Asia and chairman of Clas committee

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Being able to help those who are unable to help themselves provides a sense of satisfaction for lawyer Abraham Vergis.

Mr Vergis, 41, who chairs Clas, first did pro bono work in 2001 when he acted for a client who was charged with being a runner for an illegal moneylender.

His client, who has low IQ, was working as an assistant in the moneylender's goldsmith shop, a legitimate business. But he was later asked to open a bank account under his name for the illegal moneylending business. Charges against him were dropped after Mr Vergis argued that the client was being exploited by his boss and has low IQ.

"It occurred to me that in some cases at least, the defence counsel can make a difference by highlighting facts that may be overlooked," said Mr Vergis. "When you are able to make a difference to people's lives, it's very satisfying."

He also lauded the enhanced Clas, and in particular, the token fee of between $500 and $2,500 - depending on how far the case progresses - that would be given to volunteer lawyers.

"Ensuring access to justice of the poor is a critical social need that cannot simply depend on the good graces of the lawyers. As a society, we are collectively responsible to ensure that the door of justice is open to the poor, marginalised and vulnerable in our society," he noted.

2. Mr S. Balamurugan, 43, associate director of Straits Law and volunteer with Clas 

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Doing pro bono work exposes a lawyer to new perspectives, said Mr S. Balamurugan, a volunteer lawyer with Clas.

Not only did it allow him to hone his professional skills, but it also showed him the issues and problems in the society, the 43-year-old added.

Recalling a case last year where he defended a domestic maid for lacing her employer's daughter's drinks with pesticide, he said: "In my interactions with her, it became apparent that she didn't understand the consequences... the problem was that she could not cope with the demands of the household duties and she felt helpless in Singapore."

He added: "I don't have a maid, but... what I learnt from this is the importance of showing empathy and understanding their backgrounds."

And because of such experiences, he felt that pro bono work is worthwhile.

Other than Clas, Mr Balamurugan also conducts legal clinics at the Nanyang Community Club and the Movement for the Intellectually Disabled of Singapore, where parents of children who are mentally disabled would ask him to write wills on their behalf.

When asked if he has any advice for young lawyers, he said: "Set aside some time for pro bono work. You will gain valuable experience from doing it... it's not all about dollars and cents."

3. Ms June Lim, 29, managing Director of Eden Law Corporation and volunteer with Clas 

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In August last year, Ms June Lim, 29, set up a law firm which aims to represent less privileged clients at fixed fees.

Called Eden Law Corporation, Ms Lim, who volunteers with Clas and the Legal Aid Bureau, said that fixed fees are the "way to go to give access to justice to the lower rung".

She said: "Previously where I have worked, I had been doing pro-bono work... but I felt that I was only scratching the surface.

"Hence, I needed to find my own path to do it, since I believe strongly in pro bono."

She recalled a case where she helped a young offender who was facing several charges of rioting. The client said he had mixed with bad company, but was remorseful and wanted to sit for his N Levels so that he could find a job to support his family.

After negotiating with the prosecution, his charges were reduced and he was sentenced to probation, but later went on to do well for his N Levels and found a job.

Ms Lim noted: "You cannot measure a system through its successes, but also by the bottom... (We need to) ensure justice is done, not just for those who are rich but also for those who are not."