Pro Bono Publico

Pro Bono Lawyers – Less Stress, More Success

Two years ago, the Pro Bono Services Office (“PBSO”) set up a scheme called the Pro Bono Research Initiative (“PBRI”) to try to lighten the load of lawyers taking pro bono cases. The idea was to make it possible for lawyers to take more pro bono cases by reducing the workload for each case. PBSO’s PBRI Co-ordinator, Eoin Ó Muimhneacháin, hopes that volunteer lawyers are being empowered to integrate their pro bono work into their practice by freeing up time and resources that would otherwise have to be diverted to getting up at the early stages of a pro bono case.

Says Eoin, “We know that the pressures of running a successful practice are considerable and that sometimes, a lawyer’s pro bono commitments can be an added pressure. That shouldn’t be the case, and certainly, a pro bono client should receive the same standard and quality of legal services as if he were paying for them. Our pro bono research teams can help to ensure that the legal authority for whatever approach the practitioner decides to take is there, is thoroughly researched and that no stone is left unturned in ensuring that each pro bono client benefits from representation that is firmly grounded in solid legal authority. Our job is to make the pro bono lawyers’ jobs as easy as possible, so that they have more time to focus on developing their practice and hopefully taking a few more pro bono cases.”

A key feature of this initiative is the fact that it is available for any pro bono case, regardless of whether it was assigned under a particular scheme. CLAS (Criminal Legal Aid Scheme), AHPBS (Ad Hoc Pro Bono Scheme), LAB (Legal Aid Bureau), LASCO (Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences) and anything else that’s done pro bono can call on the services of PBRI. “Our missions are to ensure access to justice for all and to serve our members. Ultimately, regardless of whether or not the case is one that was assigned by our office, if a disadvantaged member of the community is receiving quality legal assistance and our members’ lives are being made easier, both our objectives are being met. It’s a win-win situation for everyone,” says Eoin.

The research volunteer pool is comprised of over 150 lawyers and law students. It’s a rather diverse volunteer pool covering a wide spectrum of experiences. According to Eoin, “… there are so many lawyers out there who want to be able to do something in the pro bono space, but cannot represent people in Court. They’re eager to find another avenue to contribute and give something back while still getting the opportunity to be involved in a real case and make a real difference to a real person’s life. PBRI provides that opportunity.” These volunteers include corporate lawyers who just don’t feel comfortable representing someone in Court, lawyers who have left practice and gone in-house or into other fields, foreign lawyers, trainees, academics and students (undergraduate and postgraduate, local and overseas). 

When a PBRI application is received, the research volunteers are activated and the first few responders are put together in teams of between one to 10 people, depending on the complexity of the legal issues to be researched. The deadline can be anywhere from one week to two months. Once the team has been assembled, they meet the lawyer (usually at his/her office) and are briefed on the background of the case, the legal issues to be researched and the overall case strategy. Then tasks are allocated to individual researchers and their work is collated by the PBRI Co-ordinator by the deadline and sent to the practitioner with copies of all the authorities referred to. Thereafter, the practitioner keeps the PBRI Co-ordinator informed of any public hearing dates so that the researchers can attend and watch the fruits of their labour being put into practice.

Feedback from Lawyers

Nadia Moynihan of Kalco Law has used PBRI for a number of Ad Hoc Pro Bono Referral Scheme cases. One was for a criminal case where a comprehensive summary of sentencing precedents was required for the purposes of mitigation with regard to a charge of providing false information to a public servant. Another was a family law case involving unusual legal issues pertaining to the law of a foreign jurisdiction and its intersection with Singapore law. The research team for that case included two lawyers from that foreign jurisdiction who were able to share their specialised knowledge of the law in that jurisdiction to produce results which might otherwise have been unattainable. Nadia said of her experience with PBRI: “The research was generally of a high calibre. I was very impressed by the promptness and efficiency of the researchers who turned up at meetings and who were very willing to contribute to the cases. I will definitely be turning to the PBRI team for more research in the future.”

Mervyn Cheong of M/s Eugene Thuraisingam sought assistance from PBRI with a CLAS case in relation to a novel point of law regarding a situation where the accused was of sound mind but was diagnosed to be unfit to plead his defence: “The research team was very helpful and enthusiastic. The research was comprehensive and the authorities they found helped to support the arguments that I wanted to put forward. The research team’s efforts really helped the case tremendously and it concluded with a favourable outcome for the client.”

Suppiah Thangaveloo of Thanga & Co used PBRI for two separate pro bono criminal cases to secure sentencing precedents for charges of providing false information to a public servant and breaching a police supervision order, respectively. According to Thangaveloo, “The work process was well planned and follow up was top notch. The meeting at our office helped to narrow the scope and number of issues and the intended direction of research. The research was on point. The cases cited were relevant and very useful for guidance on sentencing principles as well as aggravating and mitigating circumstances. They had great potential for citation in mitigation. Communication was always swift and the research materials were promptly delivered. Fantastic work and outcome. It is encouraging to have such support! Good quality assistance has tremendous value!”

Kirsten Teo of Harry Elias Partnership LLP and Chitra Balakrishnan of Regency Legal LLP each represented a co-accused CLAS applicant who was convicted of using counterfeit passports and credit cards. They applied to PBRI for research on precedents on consecutive and concurrent sentencing in such cases. Kirsten said “PBRI has been very efficient and helpful to my CLAS client. The case research and comments have been very valuable.” Chitra found that it was a good way for lawyers to take a step back and review their cases while PBRI took on the function of assisting with thorough research that was much needed.

Bachoo Mohan Singh of Veritas Law Corporation and Krishna Sharma of Tan Lee & Partners were representing a man accused of drug trafficking in a CLAS case when Mohan applied for PBRI. He wanted to collect sentencing precedents for trafficking in similar quantities of the same drug and research on the differences between cannabis and cannabis mixture. Mohan said of the research team: “They were brilliant! All demonstrated so much enthusiasm despite the situation being pro bono, which was amazing. They really cut down the time I had to spend on research.”

Josephus Tan of Fortis Law Corporation used PBRI for its first test case which was a Magistrate’s appeal referred by Justice Rajah from the Supreme Court. He needed detailed research on sentencing, the power of a Magistrate to call for a Corrective Training Sentence Report and the circumstances in which a Corrective Training Sentence could be given. He was provided with a research team of eight volunteers. He says of PBRI, “They’re the best!”

Feedback from Researchers

PBRI has proven to be a particularly popular pro bono scheme for which to volunteer. There are usually more volunteers per assignment than there are slots available. The diversity of researchers in terms of experience and background is refreshing. So what motivates them to volunteer?

For Joy Anna Wolst, it was the opportunity to learn about Singapore criminal law. Joy is a German lawyer and now, a full-time stay-at-home mum. She was part of the research team supporting Mohan and Krishna. “I was able to deepen my understanding of Singaporean criminal law. It was fun for me to work in a team for a good cause and I was impressed by the professional manner in which the pro bono defence lawyers handled the case.”

For Nichol Yeo, it was an opportunity to sharpen and expand his legal skills. Nichol is a trainee at Solitaire LLP. He has volunteered for a number of assignments including previously mentioned cases with Nadia and Josephus. “One of the biggest benefits I took away from the PBRI was to work with different lawyers on different types of cases. I got exposed to their different individual styles and learnt about how different strategies are to be used in different situations. Because every PBRI case involves novel or complex points of law, I was able to hone my research skills with each assignment. This helped me tremendously in my work. The people involved with the PBRI were also amazing. They were warm and encouraging despite the odd-hour meetings and deadlines. They are a great bunch to work with!”

Christine Smith is an academic who teaches Legal Analysis, Writing and Research at the National University of Singapore. She has volunteered for a number of PBRI assignments, including Kirsten’s and Chitra’s. Christine had good things to say about her involvement with PBRI. “In my experience with the PBRI programme, I have observed several benefits. First, it allows busy practitioners the opportunity to take on pro bono cases that they might not otherwise have for fear of a heavy research commitment. Second, as a volunteer researcher, I enjoyed the opportunity to work with and learn from advocates in various fields. Finally, having various individuals from varying specialities and at varying levels of experience coming together on a particular research project worked quite well for sharing ideas, attacking a problem from different perspectives and affording an opportunity for some of the student researchers to learn from the more experienced lawyers (and, sometimes, vice versa!)”

Liu Xuanyi was just looking for a way to use his skills to give something back to society and found PBRI. Xuanyi is an undergraduate law student at Singapore Management University and his first taste of pro bono work with PBRI has whetted his appetite for more when he gets called to the Bar. “I found the PBRI to be a great opportunity for me to give back to society. I was involved in a CLAS case and supported the pro bono lawyers through research on sentencing principles and case precedents. It was inspiring to see the professional approach that the pro bono lawyers adopted, and I was certainly motivated by this experience to explore future opportunities in pro bono work.” His classmate, Sih Im, agrees: “With the workload in law school, it is often easy to forget the ideals of ensuring justice for the man in the street. My PBRI experience was a timely and meaningful reminder that my efforts can make a difference, however small, in the legal representation and life of an individual.”

Carolyn Carden was looking for a way to get involved in the community and put her legal skills to use. A retired English solicitor, she found herself with more spare time than she was accustomed to and wanted to learn more about the legal system she had moved to. “One of the things that has impressed me hugely is the dedication of the volunteers and their ability to produce detailed work, sometimes to a tight timetable, as well as doing their day jobs. Just helping where you can in a different field of law in a different country is stimulating and helping a fellow human being is the icing on the cake!”

Tay Shi Ing is an undergraduate law student at the National University of Singapore and was part of the research team that assisted Mervyn. From a student’s perspective, she sees value in the way PBRI volunteers’ input complements that of volunteers under CLAS, LAB and other schemes. “Volunteering with the PBRI is a meaningful experience. Students working with pro bono lawyers on live cases is an efficient marriage of resources. Students are able to contribute by providing the time and effort needed for research, while the expertise of experienced lawyers is necessary to translate the legal knowledge into decisions that will help in achieving a desirable outcome. Students stand to benefit greatly from this process, as they are able to expand their knowledge of the law and learn about case strategy while understanding that their efforts are of importance to the outcome of the case.”

Dhiraj Joseph is a New York-called corporate lawyer working in Latham & Watkins’ Singapore office. He has enthusiastically taken on a number of PBRI assignments including one of Thangaveloo’s mentioned above. His experience of meeting the demands of corporate clients and planning his time around the progress and closing of deals is familiar to many associates and can make volunteering regularly for pro bono assignments seem daunting, even in a firm like Latham & Watkins where management actively encourages lawyers to be pro-active in taking on pro bono work. However, Dhiraj finds that PBRI can fit neatly into the brief lulls between one deal and the next. “PBRI, due to the short time frame of each assignment, is an ideal type of pro bono project for associates at large law firms. You are usually only asked for a one to two week commitment, which is a lot easier to plan for, but you still get to work on truly substantive issues where you feel like you made a useful contribution. In addition, the varied nature of each assignment always keeps things interesting. PBRI is a very satisfying way to give a little back to the community.”

Benson Lim couldn’t wait until he got called to start doing pro bono work and didn’t want to stop after he got called. He is an associate at WongPartnership LLP. He has worked on a number of PBRI matters, including one unusual and highly publicised homicide case in which the CLAS lawyer was considering putting forward a defence of automatism, which would have been the first time the defence had been pleaded in Singapore’s Courts. “I first decided to be involved with PBRI as a trainee because I saw it as an opportunity to make a real difference to the work of pro bono lawyers. The diversity and complexity of cases under PBRI’s purview excited me and indeed, my PBRI assignments proved to be intellectually stimulating. It was also deeply satisfying when we as a PBRI team saw that our hard work made a difference for indigent accused in those cases. Above all, I was humbled that the pro bono lawyers took the effort to engage us in discussions. I must say that my positive experience from PBRI and the inspirational role models of those pro bono lawyers strongly motivated me to eventually take up cases for indigent clients on behalf of CLAS and LASCO after I was called to the Bar.”

Andrew Foo is a trainee solicitor (England & Wales) in the London office of Allen & Overy. Upon completing his law degree at Oxford University but before commencing his training contract, Andrew spent a summer at home in Singapore, volunteering at PBSO. This was his first encounter with PBRI but although he has now returned to England, he continues to volunteer with PBRI, dialling in for conference calls with the pro bono lawyer and other researchers for the research briefing and conducting and submitting his research remotely from London thereafter. He has worked on a number of assignments including some of the previously mentioned cases with Nadia, Kirsten and Chitra. Andrew says, “PBRI is a fantastic way to do pro bono work – chiefly for its flexibility, allowing volunteers to volunteer for projects which match their interest, expertise and availability. There is also good scope given for independent thought and research. But the part I like best is the opportunity it gives me to offer help to someone – to love a neighbour in need and in deed.”

These are just a small sample of the research volunteer pool. There are many others who are eager for further opportunities to become involved in pro bono cases.

PBSO hopes to expand its PBRI program to be able to assist more pro bono lawyers going forward and welcomes more research volunteers and more applications for research assistance. 

If you would like to volunteer to be added to the pool of researchers or would like to apply for research assistance with an ongoing pro bono case of which you have conduct, you can request an application form from your usual PBSO contact, call 6536 0650 or e-mail [email protected]

Pro Bono Services Office
     The Law Society of Singapore