Free legal centres to be set up in heartland for low-income families

Two full-time lawyers are expected to be deployed in each centre through a community law fellowship programme. ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE - Low-income residents in the heartland may soon get access to free legal help close to their home, with the first law community centre to be set up in Hougang.

The centre in the Tian De Temple will open later this year under an agreement signed by the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS), the temple, the Singapore University of Social Sciences and the RSS Foundation on Aug 20.

The foundation, established by law firm R. S. Solomon, will help raise funds for this initiative.

In an exclusive interview with The Straits Times earlier this week, LSPBS chairman Gregory Vijayendran and chief executive Tanguy Lim said LSPBS, which will change its name to Pro Bono SG later this year, plans to roll out more of such centres in the heartland.

The goal is to bring legal assistance closer to those with mobility and technology challenges.

Mr Vijayendran, a senior counsel, said: "This is like neighbourhood polyclinics or GPs who are right there at the locale. They are walking and journeying with the community and are able to troubleshoot problems."

Mr Lim said: "We'll be connecting with all the family service centres, the SSOs (social service offices), all the different charities, which are often the first responders meeting persons who are facing some kind of calamity, which often may have some legal aspects as well. The idea then is to work holistically to help those persons."

For instance, he said, in cases of domestic violence, a social worker may help the parties to get counselling, while a lawyer may help the victim apply for an exclusion or personal protection order.

Two full-time lawyers are expected to be deployed in each centre through the Community Law Fellowship Programme, which will recruit lawyers, or community law fellows, for the centres.

On Friday night (Aug 26),  LSPBS celebrated its 15th anniversary with a concert at Victoria Concert Hall, where members of the legal fraternity shared the stage and sang duets with migrant workers.

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong was the guest of honour and sang The Beatles' With A Little Help From My Friends with Mr Vijayendran in front of an audience of about 600.

Those in the audience included members of the legal fraternity and representatives from non-governmental organisations, as well as friends and family of the performers.

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Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (Clas) assistant director Sadhana Rai, one of the emcees for the evening, told ST she found her purpose in full-time pro bono work, citing cases involving young offenders as particularly meaningful to her.

"Juveniles tend to not be of the same maturity as adults when they make decisions, and they also don't have access to the same kind of resources to make better decisions... (And) there's always scope for second chances," said Ms Rai.

She recalled getting probation for a 17-year-old who was charged with causing grievous hurt while his mother was serving jail time for a separate offence.

The LSPBS was established in 2007 as a department in the Law Society and came a charity in 2017.

Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim, 63, who sang with his wife, Mrs Cynthia Yim, in the concert, wrote the report that helped set up the office.

He said: "In those days, we would not have been able to see that the idea and genesis of that report would become such an important thing.

"The number of people the Law Society has served through this pro bono office has been phenomenal."

LSPBS has helped 132,000 people through its legal awareness, advice and advocacy services.

It has more than 1,000 volunteers. Between April last year and March this year, it helped more than 17,000 individuals and community organisations through its programmes, which include Clas and legal clinics.

Both Mr Lim and Mr Vijayendran cited the legal clinics for community organisations, which began in 2010, as a high point for the service, noting that lawyers with different specialities and of different levels of experience worked together to help those with no access to a lawyer.

Mr Vijayendran said: "One of the paradigm roles for lawyers is not just (being a) gladiator, there's a place for that; not just a trusted adviser, there's a place for that too. But there is another dimension - which is as a healer."

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