Law Society chief Thio Shen Yi happy to pass on baton

Mr Thio hands over the reins of the Law Society next month, after serving two terms as president, a job he considers an "honour and privilege" and "deeply fulfilling". The Senior Counsel has highlighted a contingency fee scheme and access to justice
Mr Thio hands over the reins of the Law Society next month, after serving two terms as president, a job he considers an "honour and privilege" and "deeply fulfilling". The Senior Counsel has highlighted a contingency fee scheme and access to justice as key areas that the society is working on.ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

Governing council ensures continuity in Law Society, says outgoing president Thio

Contingency fees, access to justice and access to counsel - these are key areas that the Law Society will help to shape and move in the public interest landscape here, said the society's president, Mr Thio Shen Yi, as he prepares to hand over the job next month.

Mr Thio, who is also a Senior Counsel, made it clear the society is bigger than any one leader because there is continuity in the form of the governing council.

He said he was fortunate in that he, his successor Gregory Vijayendran and predecessor Lok Vi Ming are all "very much aligned on the big issues".

  • Measured approach in lawyer M. Ravi's case

  • Lawyer M. Ravi's case caused a "lot of mess" but the Law Society came out of it quite well because people realised we were prepared to be tough in a rational and fair way, look at the big picture and the profession's interest, said Mr Thio Shen Yi.

    "I joke that I get defamed every other week but, when it affects our staff and our profession, we need to draw the line and say what is acceptable and what is unacceptable conduct," he said.

    Mr Ravi was suspended for two years by the Court of Three Judges in September after admitting to four charges, which included creating a ruckus at the Law Society premises on Feb 10 last year.

    He was suspended to safeguard the public interest, given that his condition caused him to act in a manner unbecoming of a lawyer.

    "We were very reasonable and compassionate because we frankly did not take out the big guns,we took a measured approach."

    He added that Mr Ravi is a "pretty decent lawyer" when he is on his medication and not in his bipolar state, taking on difficult cases which advance the law.

    "In our kind of system, he can take a position, and somebody will oppose that position, and out of that thesis and antithesis we hope to get some sort of synthesis which moves us forward. So it's not entirely a bad thing."

  • Constructive relationship with Government

  • "The Law Society is one of the major components of civil society and it should not be looking purely at the interests of lawyers but at the wider interest in Singapore," argued Mr Thio Shen Yi.

    Reflecting on the law that curbs lawyers from expressing views on legislation unless sought, he said the society has come a long way and a dialogue on that law is due to take place with Law Minister K. Shanmugam.

    "Even if we disagree, we can have a respectful, constructive discussion about it, and it is an aspiration that the Government will realise that one day; we are not only trustworthy and constructive, but actually you need civil society to be robust and resilient. Because that is the core against excessive change of direction.

    "So I've been trying to instil in the society an ethos, that we should speak out, take positions."

    The relevant section inserted into the Legal Profession Act 30 years ago curbs the society from speaking up proactively. But the Government has engaged the society for its take on some issues.

    Said Mr Thio: "We are way into collaborative territory and I think we have showed ourselves to be a very rational organisation. I know the Government has its own views on this and these are legitimate views. To be fair, it has asked us for a lot of inputs over time, so the relationship is very good and very constructive."

"Our styles differ, the way we approach problems may differ, but what we are trying to do in the long run is very much aligned - we're trying to improve and develop and raise standards of the entire profession," he said.

Among other things, he said the society has recommended to the Law Ministry that a contingency fee scheme be put in place for access to justice cases with such deals inked between clients and lawyers subject to its approval. "This will ensure an actual check against profiteering in civil cases," said Mr Thio.

"The check will be the Law Society because the contingency could be, 'I am going to take $10 from my client, but if I win, I am going to take all the party costs and I'll take 5 per cent of the winnings.' "

He said that would be huge in percentage terms as "a cut of the winnings could be a 200 per cent uplift on a lawyer's regular fees".

"In the corporate world you can stake contingency fees in the sense that you have an abortive fee, if the deal doesn't go through, and you have a fee if the deal goes through. You can structure your fees like that," he noted.

The move would encourage people with bona fide cases to go to court, Mr Thio said.

He steps down at a time when lawyers face increasing challenges of revenue, fee pressure and eroding profit margins; technological changes and practical challenges. But the challenges should not detract from the gains which the society can be justifiably proud of, he said.

He singled out the achievements in the society's pro bono work and the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).

There are now junior lawyers funded to manage and shore up the scheme of volunteers but this will get a boost with the Law Ministry's agreement to fund two senior lawyers, which he hopes will take place next year, he said.

"This is a major development in our access to justice story. Other countries may have a public defender's office, we are very happy with our public-private partnership, the Government funds what we do, we provide the volunteers. Law firms also contribute funds, so this year one of our highlights was a concert where we raised about $768,000 for our pro bono programmes."

While pro bono work has done "very well", early access to lawyers for detained suspects is a work in progress.

"The Law Society should realise that we are not going to change the Government's mind all of a sudden.

"The principle is that someone should have a lawyer, so the only question is how long does the accused person have to wait.

"Right now, we think that the balance is a bit too much in favour of the investigating authorities, and we should roll it back a bit. We also recognise that sometimes the investigations need time, and they need the freedom to investigate, so it's a balance."

Deeming it an "honour and privilege" and "deeply fulfilling" to be president, he suggested the phrase, "(that) 'the least enviable job in the legal profession' ought to be retired because we've been blessed with so much support and goodwill".

On stepping down after serving two terms, Mr Thio said: "I promised my wife I would stop at two."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 05, 2016, with the headline 'Law Soc chief happy to pass on baton People'. Print Edition | Subscribe