Pro Bono Publico

Three lawyers talk about their experiences in volunteering with the Law Society’s Ad Hoc Pro Bono Referral Scheme.

Filling the Gap:
Lawyers Giving Aid in Ad Hoc Cases

What happens to needy litigants in person who do not qualify for existing legal aid schemes? Do they just fall through the cracks of the system? The Ad Hoc Pro Bono Referral Scheme (“AHPBR”) was created to provide legal representation for persons who fall into this grey area where schemes like the Legal Aid Bureau (“LAB”) or Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (“CLAS”) are unable to assist them, even though such persons are in dire need of legal help.
AHPBR is run by the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office (“PBS”). The AHPBR receives referrals from government organisations, the Courts, community-serving organisations and lawyers. Once a referral is received, a full assessment of the applicant’s suitability for help is made before the request for representation is circulated amongst a pool of volunteer lawyers.
In other cases, lawyers wishing to act pro bono for a client, but who need a means assessment of the client done in order to determine genuine neediness, may also approach PBS for a means assessment report before acting pro bono.
We speak to three lawyers who have volunteered their time and expertise to the AHPBR scheme. We probe these three gentlemen, Anand Nalachandran, Law Society Council member and partner at a local law firm; Rajan Chettiar from Rajan Chettiar & Co; and Sankar Saminathan of Sankar Ow & Partners LLP on their AHPBR volunteering experiences.
    Anand Nalachandran

You took up an AHPBR case involving a mentally challenged youth who was charged with transmitting a false message, under s 45b of the Telecommunications Act, Chapter 323. What made you decide to represent the youth?

The personal and financial circumstances of the accused person were dire. I believe he satisfied the “means test” but did not qualify for CLAS only because this offence was not included in the listed statutes.  In those circumstances, he would have fallen through the cracks - but I felt that he truly needed help.
A Discharge Not Amounting to Acquittal with a conditional warning was granted in favour of the accused but not every outcome is favourable to an accused. With paying clients, the lawyers receive financial gain. With pro bonocases, what are the rewards?

For the youth I represented, the Attorney-General’s Chambers kindly exercised their discretion in his favour and I was glad for him and his family - I would feel the same way for any client, whether paying or pro bono. In doing pro bono work, you can make a positive difference just by sacrificing some time – knowing that you have helped the less fortunate and receiving their genuine appreciation are the rewards.
How did you start volunteering for the AHPBR scheme?
I have volunteered with CLAS for over 10 years and usually accept one to two CLAS cases each year. In a way, this was just an extension of a criminal practice. To date, I have accepted two AHPBR cases – one case is still ongoing. Lawyers have the ability to help the impecunious and vulnerable members of the community so I accept pro bono matters whenever time and resources permit.

    Rajan Chettiar

A Singaporean incarcerated in Taiwan sought representation for his matrimonial asset suit and was referred to the AHPBR scheme by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. You took up the case and worked closely with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Taipei Trade Mission Office. How was that experience?
The Taipei Trade Mission office was very efficient. They even reverted to me on weekends. They were the direct liaison between the client and I and gave the client tremendous assistance. I did not have to travel to Taipei to meet the client; the Taipei Trade Mission Office assisted in affirming Affidavits and forwarding them to me. Overall, I felt that it was a rare opportunity and a privilege to help a Singaporean incarcerated in a foreign country.
This case is still pending a conclusion. Do you find yourself less pressed for a resolution because you are working pro bono?
I just want to do my best and help a fellow Singaporean. The fact that he is in such circumstances makes my heart go out to him. I feel empathy and am even more motivated to help him. I think my anxiety is more for this client than a paying client. The final order that I am going to obtain for him is going to affect his future when he is released from prison and starts the new phase of his life.
You run your own firm; how do you justify spending time doing legal work that some would say is practically for free?
I am a strong supporter of pro bono work. It is in line with my life mission to help as many people as I can during this lifetime. To me, doing pro bono work is extremely emotionally satisfying. The positive feelings and energy from doing pro bono work cannot be described in words. These intangible benefits that I garner from volunteering are an additional reward that keep me going in practice year after year. Honestly, I do not think the financial rewards commensurate with the amount of time we lawyers put into work and the personal sacrifices that we make. I don’t treat pro bono cases differently. They are the same as my paying cases. So, I devote the same amount of time I would to paying clients.

    Sankar Saminathan

One of the first AHPBR cases was a case involving a single mother who lodged a Magistrate’s Complaint against a man who had been incessantly harassing her. You represented the Complainant. How did you get involved in this case?
I was actually walking in the Subordinate Courts when I met an old friend, Lim Tanguy, the Pro Bono Services Director who chatted with me about pro bono work. A couple of days later, Tanguy called me up and asked if I would be interested in taking up a case under the AHPBR scheme. I figured that if there are people who need help and it will not take up too much time then why not? Prior to this request, I had never actually thought about doing pro bono work.
Did the Complainant’s plight affect you in any way?
The most successful people are able to put emotions aside. I try to live my life that way. There is definitely that element of self-satisfaction for helping another. But emotions do not get the job done. I am a God believing man who is doing the work of God to the best of my ability,that is all.
What do you think is important for lawyers who do pro bonowork with schemes like AHPBR?
With any case, expectations of the client must be managed well. It is good to spend time talking with the persons involved, ensuring that they understand what is achievable with their case. Just because it is pro bono work, it does not mean that the client has little or no expectations. If I take on a pro bono case and the client is not prepared to accept the advice I have to offer, the possibility of a disappointing outcome for the client is high. When people are down and out, disappointment is even more disheartening.

The AHPBR is a legal aid scheme set up to provide pro bono legal representation to needy persons who are unable to qualify for existing pro bono legal aid schemes but are in dire circumstances. If you would like to bea volunteer lawyer and make a difference in the lives of needy persons seeking access to justice and a fair chance of legal representation, please contact the Pro Bono Services Office. For more information on AHPBR and other free legal aid schemes run by the Pro Bono Services Office, we invite you to visit our website at 

Joanna Lee
Pro Bono Services Office
The Law Society of Singapore
Telephone: 6536 0650
E-mail: [email protected]