Pro Bono Publico

Since its inception, the Pro Bono Services Office (“PBSO”) has been expanding its contacts, and sharing its knowledge and resources with local and overseas organisations. Its recent collaboration with Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education (“BABSEA-CLE”) saw BABSEA-CLE connecting PBSO with the National University of Laos’ Faculty of Law & Political Science where the latter had an interest in learning about pro bono efforts in Singapore, particularly in setting up a community legal clinic for the people of Laos.

For a period of five weeks, the PBSO hosted Mr Pangthong Xayyavong, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law and Political Science at the National University of Laos. This official attachment is a historic first for PBSO and provided Pangthong the opportunity to be exposed to the concept of Community Justice and the practice of law in Singapore. Pangthong immersed himself in the daily workings of the PBSO and also had a stint as an intern at Patrick Tan LLC. PBSO recently caught up with Pangthong over e-mail where he shared with us the pro bono landscape in Laos and his learning experiences from his time at PBSO and Patrick Tan LLC.

Pro Bono: Bridging Borders, Connecting Hearts

Pangthong Xayyavong (in blue shirt, middle) with staff of PBSO and law students from the National University of Singapore and the Singapore Management University

I joined the Community Legal Education initiative under BABSEA because I realise that access to justice is very important for everyone in Laos, especially those who are underprivileged, disabled or illiterate.
Laos is still the least developed country with more than 70 per cent of the population living in rural and mountainous areas. The people face a lot of problems such as transportation, schooling, communication and electricity. Their location alone makes it a challenge for them to have access to justice. For them it is expensive to travel out to reach Court or government offices; if they are underprivileged, they cannot afford to travel.
As a country that is still developing the Rule of Law, legal assistance is a service that is limited to a few. Furthermore, there are only about 140 lawyers in Laos and a majority of them work for private businesses. We, therefore, are in need of quantity and quality legal aid resources.
Non-Governmental Organisations (“NGOs”), Civil Society Organisations (“CSO”), the government and development agencies such as the United Nations Development Programme (“UNDP”) are seeking possibilities to provide legal assistance to disadvantaged or vulnerable groups.
Where I work the Faculty of Law and Political Science (“FLP”) at the National University of Laos – we administer the CLE. On days where I am not teaching International Relations to second year undergraduates, I train volunteer students for Community Legal Teaching programmes. I also go to remote provinces to raise legal awareness for residents of that area.
With the help of BABSEA-CLE*, Lux-Development, foreign law firm Freehills and some NGOs in Laos, we are currently forming in-house clinics or a legal clinic programme under the Faculty of Law and Political Science for 2013. It will be called the FLP Legal Clinic. We are recruiting staff to run this clinic programme and to give free legal advice for people who face legal issues.
To prepare myself for this, I was sent to the PBSO of the Law Society for five weeks to learn from them practices and procedures of running a legal aid office, in particular their Community Legal Clinics (“CLC”).
I could ask questions freely and was given clear instructions on the office procedures. I was given the opportunity to attend to CLC enquiries and registration. I also worked with a student-volunteer for a CLAS interview.
I think the CLC model is very suited for the FLP Legal Clinic. I will work to have it implemented for phase one. The CLAS model will be applied in the later phase as the FLP Legal Clinic progresses and grows in capacity.
When my time with PBSO was over, I then spent about two weeks at Patrick Tan LLC** to observe the operations of a law firm and to experience first-hand the firm’s pro bonoculture. I can say that many hours and much effort are put into their work, pro bonoor not.
At the firm, I was exposed to basic functional operations such as secretaries coordinating meetings for lawyers and external appointments such as accompanying a lawyer to Court for a pro bonomatter. I also attended other legal clinics which the firm’s lawyers volunteer at. There, I observed how the firm’s lawyers handle and interact with applicants at the legal clinic. These will be beneficial to our set-up in Laos.
My attachment to both offices was different from that of a law student’s – the time spent allowed me to experience the coordination, relationships and dynamics that were at play in order for a pro bonoculture to flourish.
When PBSO and Patrick Tan LLC knew of my objective of visiting Singapore, they were very keen to share their knowledge and experience with me. Their passion is inspiring.
I have observed that the efforts of volunteer lawyers are acknowledged by the Ministry of Law, the Courts, the Law Society of Singapore and PBSO. 
I am excited by what I have learned and experienced in Singapore and look forward to my return to Laos where I will present my experiences and discuss ideas with CLE members and lecturers of the faculty.
*BABSEA-CLE (Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia Community Legal Education) is an international access to justice, legal education organisation that focuses on ethically oriented legal capacity development and community empowerment. Since 2003, BABSEA-CLE has been working collaboratively with universities, law students, law faculty, lawyers, members of the legal community and justice related organisational partners to develop Community legal Education and legal clinic programmes throughout Southeast Asia. These programmes and clinics assist communities, provide legal aid services and simultaneously help build the next generation of social justice, pro-bono minded champions. Visit to learn more.
**The generous host, Patrick Tan LLC. In light of Patrick Tan LLC ‘s prolific engagement in pro bono work in Singapore, the firm was invited to host Pangthong for three weeks. During his time with Patrick Tan LLC, Pangthong was given the opportunity to observe the firm’s efforts in pro bono work. He was brought to legal clinics located in the heartlands and to locations as far as Changi Prison Complex for client interviews. Pangthong’s attachment with the firm adds to his learning experience which he will take back and share with his colleagues in Laos.

Lilyana Gan
    Pro Bono Services Office
    The Law Society of Singapore
Note: The content of this interview documents the personal and learning experience of the interviewee. Any opinions expressed are the interviewee’s own personal impressions. The interview was conducted via e-mail with his responses edited for clarity and perused by him before publication.