160 pro bono hours and (not) counting

Mr Shaun Lim received the Outstanding Court Volunteer Award in the student category earlier this month for volunteering to help people navigate processes at the State Courts.
Mr Shaun Lim received the Outstanding Court Volunteer Award in the student category earlier this month for volunteering to help people navigate processes at the State Courts.ST PHOTO: WONG KWAI CHOW

NUS undergrad says volunteering keeps him grounded in reality, invested in legal system

A year ago, law student Shaun Lim signed up as a volunteer at the State Courts to meet a pro bono work requirement. But he enjoyed it so much, he ended up spending a lot more time volunteering than required and even won an award for his commitment.

The 24-year-old law student received the Outstanding Court Volunteer Award in the student category earlier this month for volunteering to help people navigate processes at the State Courts.

There were four other winners across the Supreme Court, the State Courts and the Family Justice Courts.

Mr Lim made 68 trips to the State Courts from June last year to April this year, and spent 160 hours there as a volunteer.

He stopped counting the hours in April, but still returns to help train younger law students.

So it is somewhat of an irony that in March last year, Mr Lim was looking for a quick way to fulfil the requirement of 20 pro bono hours that National University of Singapore (NUS) law students need to complete in their second year.

  • 20

    Number of pro bono hours required of second-year law students at NUS.

  • 160

    Number of hours Mr Shaun Lim clocked between June last year and April this year.

  • 68

    Number of trips he has made to the courts during that period.

  • 300

    Number of people the Student Representatives Programme has helped so far.

OPPORTUNITY TO LEARN

It's a meaningful way for law students to deploy their skills. You get to practise legal drafting and see how an argument flows. You have to understand the law before explaining it to people.

MR SHAUN LIM, an NUS law student, on volunteering for pro bono work at the State Courts.

He had been occupied with two mooting competitions, and needed to complete 16 hours of pro bono work within two months, by the end of his second year in school.

He spoke to Associate Professor Lim Lei Theng, who co-heads the NUS Pro Bono Office.

To help him, she roped him in for a new project for student volunteers to help litigants-in-person - those who are self-represented - in harassment cases and community disputes.

Mr Lim spent about 16 hours in April and May going through the Protection from Harassment Act and the Community Disputes Resolution Act, condensing them into a handbook, and compiling forms that court users would need.

His effort led to the start of the Student Representatives Programme, a State Courts initiative in partnership with the NUS Pro Bono Office.

A State Courts spokesman said it started the programme "with the aim of enhancing access to justice".

She said that while there are avenues for people to find out about court processes, many still have trouble following through with their applications due to unfamiliarity with legal procedures and the need to clearly and accurately draft their claims.

Under the programme, which began in June last year, law students are stationed at the State Courts to help the public understand processes like filing claims and applying for court orders.

Students receive training from the State Courts and are guided by senior court administrators. They also have the chance to sit in on court hearings and interact with judges to learn about the application of law.

"This was not a regular opportunity. Most pro bono projects offered to students are ready-to-go... you're just a glorified clerk," said Mr Lim, who spent a few months last year on duty at the State Courts during the holidays and school term.

"It's a meaningful way for law students to deploy their skills. You get to practise legal drafting and see how an argument flows. You have to understand the law before explaining it to people."

Pro bono work like this is important as it "keeps law students grounded in reality and gets them invested in the legal system", instead of just learning about law from an ivory-tower perspective, he said.

"At the end of the day, law affects people," said Mr Lim, whose mother is a bank manager and father is a sales manager. He is an only child.

To date, 55 students have been part of the Student Representatives Programme, which has helped nearly 300 people with queries about court procedures. The students have also assisted with more than 30 court filings.

This year, Mr Lim went back to the State Courts to help train his juniors in the programme.

"I want the programme to flourish because it's a valuable service to the public and it benefits everyone involved," he said. "If it can continue and expand after I graduate, all the better."

Prof Lim said: "As part of the first batch of volunteers, Shaun stood out as the most proactive and thinking volunteer, pointing out areas where I needed to beef up the training and materials."

Besides receiving the award from the State Courts, Mr Lim was also given the Pro Bono Leadership Award from NUS in March.

He said: "I happened to find the right project to give my energy to. I was just doing my duty."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 25, 2017, with the headline '160 pro bono hours and (not) counting'. Print Edition | Subscribe