Do more to support family and criminal lawyers

The establishment of the new UniSIM Law School, a specialist law school for the training of prospective family and criminal lawyers, comes at a time of great change for the legal profession in Singapore. Following significant regulatory changes last November, which included the entry of a new centralised entity to regulate local and foreign law practices, the Steering Committee's recommendations for what will be Singapore's third law school represent a paradigm shift in training lawyers.

Unveiled on Feb 16 , the UniSIM Law School's mission is to produce "lawyers with a sound grasp of the law who have a strong sense of justice and a heart for their fellow man". The practice-oriented and multi-disciplinary curriculum for UniSIM's students will be welcomed by the legal profession, in view of the anticipated shortfall in family and criminal lawyers in the next decade. With its practical pedagogical approach, concerns that UniSIM will be second best to the law schools in the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Singapore Management University (SMU) have much less force, at least from the legal profession's standpoint.

The emphasis on a holistic selection process is also intended to reduce the risk of lawyer attrition in these practice domains, as the student profile will be geared towards mature applicants with a predisposition towards family and criminal law. The outflow of graduates from UniSIM may also have no appreciable effect on the lawyer glut phenomenon, if they practise in these two potentially understaffed practice domains.

The hopeful optimism that UniSIM graduates will, with such a carefully calibrated legal education, practise family and criminal law for the long term underscores the difficulties in ensuring that the supply of lawyers meets future demand. On the one hand, it is incontrovertible that UniSIM graduates, like graduates from the two other more established law schools, have a right to earn a living and should not be pigeon-holed into family and criminal law. No one can predict with certainty the future needs of the legal services sector and it would be wilful short-termism to curtail lawyer mobility, especially in the globalised legal landscape.

On the other hand, seeing the glass as half full may not be sufficient assurance that the legal profession's future manpower needs will be met. While the NUS and SMU law schools do not bear the burden of transforming graduates into practising lawyers, UniSIM's raison d'etre is precisely for this purpose. If insufficient numbers of UniSIM graduates enter family or criminal law practice, what is likely to result is unmet community needs coupled with a more aggravated lawyer glut, not to mention an even more highly stressed legal profession.

Practising law is a journey that begins in law school and a good foundation must be set. But equally important are optimising the UniSIM Law School education and providing support and recognition for committed community lawyers in the course of legal practice.

Thus, while the Steering Committee's recommendations are welcome, UniSIM and the legal community should do more to ensure the two practice domains will be adequately resourced in the medium to long term, while recognising market realities. Here are some suggestions.

First, a postgraduate moratorium could be implemented to ensure that UniSIM graduates serve the areas of family or criminal law that they demonstrated passion and enthusiasm for before admission. The moratorium could take the form of requiring UniSIM graduates to take on, in their first three years of practice, a prescribed number of files (which can vary depending on individual circumstances) in either or both practice domains through the Legal Aid Bureau or the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme.

Second, the financial cost pressures which come with practising in these practice domains may be alleviated by allocating heavily subsidised rental space in community centres for law firms that practise predominantly community law. This measure will also promote access to justice, as community legal assistance would be readily available to the average Singaporean.

Third, to help UniSIM graduates as well as existing family and criminal lawyers to stay the course, a formal practice support programme should be instituted under the auspices of the Law Society and UniSIM. Such a programme will assist community lawyers to better manage the evolving challenges of their practices, which are increasingly incorporating cross-border elements such as child abduction and transnational crimes.

Finally, UniSIM, supported by the legal community, should hold an annual event to recognise the efforts of community lawyers, past and present. The late Subhas Anandan, a senior partner of my firm, was a pioneer in doing pro bono criminal work and was duly recognised for his efforts. Promoting community lawyers at this event would also inspire law students, whether from UniSIM or elsewhere, to take up the worthy cause of serving the community.

As we look forward to the first intake of the UniSIM Law School next year, we should also look further to the long-term goal of ensuring sufficient numbers of community lawyers to meet the needs of Singapore society. Practising law is a journey that begins in law school and a good foundation must be set. But equally important are optimising the UniSIM Law School education and providing support and recognition for committed community lawyers in the course of legal practice. The four suggestions offer some plausible steps, beyond hopeful optimism, to enhance access to justice in Singapore.

•The writer is managing partner at RHTLaw Taylor Wessing LLP.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 23, 2016, with the headline 'Do more to support family and criminal lawyers'. Print Edition | Subscribe