Pro Bono Publico

Interview with Mr George Lim, SC
Law Society Pro Bono Ambassador 2013

Senior Counsel Mr George Lim is apologetic as he ushers the team from the Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office (“PBSO”) out of the reception area at Wee Tay & Lim LLP. All the meeting rooms are occupied, he explains, but he will host us all for coffee instead at the newly-refurbished shopping mall in Chinatown Point, where his office is based. In the elevator, he tells us that a number of new eateries have opened. “You should come by for lunch some time – you’re located so close by!” Mr Lim, of course, would know: no stranger to PBSO, and certainly not to the Law Society, where he served as President from 1998-9, also serving in that same period as Vice-President of the Singapore Academy of Law. Today, Mr Lim sits on the Boards of the Singapore Mediation Centre, Singapore Land Authority, Singapore Institute of Legal Education, and the Pro Bono Management Committee of the Law Society. He also serves on the Alternative Dispute Resolution Advisory Council of the Subordinate Courts of Singapore.
We learn that Mr Lim also currently chairs Caritas Singapore, an umbrella organisation of 23 Catholic charities and agencies serving children and women-at-risk, prisoners, migrants, the mentally and physically challenged, those with HIV/AIDS, the financially poor and those in need, regardless of race or religion.
It is, indeed, any wonder he has found the time for a coffee break at all, but Mr Lim clearly gives generously of his time, and spends a good part of the morning walking us through his vision for pro bonoin the coming year, graciously responding to further questions posted in an e-mail.
Having been awarded a Public Service Medal in 2005 for his contributions to the legal profession, Mr Lim’s appointment as the Law Society Pro Bono Ambassador for 2013 would seem a mere embellishment on a well-feathered cap. He clearly sees his new title as an important one, however. Mr Lim was in fact invited – twice before – to hold the ambassadorial position, but declined on both occasions. “To be honest,” he tells us, “when I was asked to be Pro Bono Ambassador, I felt that the award should go to a younger lawyer.” With many deserving young lawyers involved in pro bonowork, the accolade could serve as further encouragement. Junior associates at his firm are encouraged to volunteer, he shares. “We are happy when our younger lawyers are involved.”
Mr Lim’s conviction in nurturing the pro bono spirit amongst young lawyers may be traced to his own early involvement in pro bono work. As a young law student, he recounts, he attended a free legal clinic conducted by the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers. “That allowed me to see law in action; and the need to make it available to those who could not afford a lawyer. So, when I qualified as a lawyer, I decided that it was something I wanted to do.”

Mr George Lim, SC (left) receiving his Pro Bono Ambassador Award from Mr Wong Meng Meng, SC at the Law Society’s Annual Dinner and Dance in 2012.

Mr Lim went on to be involved in the setting up of the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (“CLAS”), and was assigned its first case – a shoplifting charge, he recalls, which was withdrawn after representations. “It was very satisfying to do something which made a significant difference to my client’s future.” Today, as one of the Law Society’s flagship pro bono programmes, CLAS holds the potential to make significant differences to an ever-growing number of applicants. Applications for legal representation under CLAS have increased year-on-year for the past five years, and in 2012, 320 applicants found legal representation through the scheme. Mr Lim is clearly not one to rest on his laurels though, and envisions CLAS expanding further to universal coverage – ensuring no person charged with a criminal offence is unrepresented for lack of means to employ counsel.
After all, he tells us, it is very simply about ensuring access to justice, and he will do all he can to support and encourage programmes to this end. Beyond the facilitation of criminal legal aid, PBSO has grown rapidly to include the running of legal clinics at the Subordinate Courts and Community Development Councils (“CDCs”) and the on-going development of variegated programmes of legal outreach and awareness for the community. Now actively involved in mediation, Mr Lim envisions this, too, being a part of the pro bonolandscape. “I believe that there is scope to do pro bonomediation for deserving cases.”
As chairperson of Caritas, Mr Lim oversees a similarly comprehensive scope of work, premised as well on enabling and empowering positive action. “We are currently building a village for the poor in Toa Payoh, where we hope to provide integrated and holistic services to help the poor get out of the poverty cycle,” he tells us.
The community need clearly exists. The question, of course, is how this need can be met. I ask Mr Lim what his thoughts are on the proposal to make pro bonowork mandatory for lawyers. “Mixed,” he admits. “Ideally, pro bonowork should be voluntary and come from the heart. However, the reality is that too few lawyers are doing it, and it’s the same good souls who are involved. Making it mandatory will give pro bonowork the boost that it needs to take it to a different level. Perhaps the challenge is how to convert the unconverted in the process.”
The appeal here is a very personal, heart-felt one. “Someone once told me that we stop growing as persons when we stop volunteering,” he says. “Doing volunteer work actually helps to give meaning to what we do. Once you are convinced about the value of doing something, I am sure you will find a way to balance your time.”

Dell Marie Butler
    Pro Bono Services Office
    The Law Society of Singapore