Legal aid good for society and young lawyers

K. JANARTHANAN

Justice is not just for the rich. Even those who cannot afford to hire lawyers can get legal counsel in Singapore and win, as we saw in the case of Ms Parti Liyani.

The Indonesian, accused of theft by the family she worked for as a maid, was acquitted, thanks to the hard work by her lawyer, Mr Anil Balchandani, who represented her pro bono - free of charge.

Free legal help is available and constantly publicised in Singapore, but many do not seek such help or do so only much later.

"More could be done in communicating the existence of various legal help avenues to the public," said Mr Siraj Shaik Aziz, 32, a lawyer. He has handled more than a hundred pro bono cases as Criminal Legal Aid Scheme Fellow with the Law Society Pro Bono Services.

Pro bono legal aid ensures justice for all and is one way in which lawyers can give back to society said Mr Siraj, who works as a legal associate at Silvester Legal LLC.

Lawyers work pro bono mostly in criminal cases since a person's liberty, livelihood and even life can be at stake. An accused unrepresented by a lawyer may fail to highlight salient facts to the court, which might result in him being convicted of an offence for which he possibly had a defence.

Mr Siraj, who offered exclusively pro bono services from 2018 to last year, said the work gave him "great satisfaction".

He is heartened when his clients tell him about the difference he has made. He recalled representing a 25-year-old man facing a money-laundering charge. The two co-accused had already been sentenced to jail when he took the case. His client was put on probation instead and is now doing fine.

"With a clean record, he informed me last month that he has gained employment in a large reputable company," Mr Siraj said.

Civil legal aid is available for non-criminal matters such as divorce, probate, claims for injuries from accidents or medical negligence and is provided through the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB), which is a department under the Ministry of Law.

Criminal legal aid for non-capital offences under the Penal Code and other selected statutes is administered by the Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS) through the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), which is also funded by the Ministry of Law.

"Eligibility for legal aid provided by LAB and CLAS is evaluated through a means and merits test," explained Mr Siraj.

"The means test involves assessing the applicant's income, savings, property and other assets to verify that he or she is in fact someone of limited means who cannot afford a lawyer. The merits test involves assessing whether the applicant has reasonable grounds to bring or defend the case under the law."

Legal aid is also provided for capital offences (for example murder and drug trafficking) under the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences (LASCO).

The Ad Hoc Pro Bono Referral Scheme provides legal representation for those not eligible for schemes like LAB or CLAS. Various non-governmental organisations also assist different groups of people, such as migrant workers, in finding pro bono legal representation.

More young lawyers should work pro bono, said Mr Siraj. Non-lawyers too should know about the free legal aid schemes so "they can point potential applicants in the right direction," he added.

Mr Ashvin Hariharan, 28, a senior associate at Kalidass Law Corporation, believes that pro bono work is very good for young lawyers as it helps them develop their skills.

Pro bono work, he said, allows young lawyers to take on a "certain stratum of cases" for which people usually do not hire lawyers owing to financial difficulties.

"This includes cases such as simple theft, where a person takes a few items of low value from perhaps a supermarket or a store. Quite often, these items - such as food and milk powder - are taken to provide for the accused and his or her family due to financial problems. In these circumstances, it would be very hard for them to engage and pay lawyers when they get charged," said Mr Ashvin, who has been involved in 30 pro bono cases and has been practising as a lawyer for two years.

He said that as most fee-paying clients in a law firm are the clients of a partner or director of that firm, the junior lawyers on the file are usually seen as assistants on the case.

"However, when a young lawyer takes on a pro bono case, he or she is the only lawyer the client sees, barring unusual circumstances," he added.

"The young lawyer will, therefore, be the one arguing on the client's behalf at all hearings and trials.

"Such trial exposure is very hard to come by for young lawyers with regular fee-paying clients, most of whom would, understandably, want the partner or the director to be the lawyer conducting the trial or hearings."

 janark@sph.com.sg

 
 
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