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Extending a helping hand

Tan Rou'en

MS TAN Rou’en had always wanted a job that would enable her to help others.


So when she heard of an opening at the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB), under the Ministry of Law (MinLaw), she applied for it immediately. Little did she know what she was in for.


LAB provides legal service for the less privileged.




The 31-year-old recalls: “During the interview, the then-LAB director Tan Puay Boon gave me a reality check. He told me that the bureau’s work involves heavy caseloads, and could also get emotionally draining as some of the applicants are in very difficult circumstances.”


Mr Tan’s grim revelation made her hesitate, but when a friend in the legal sector who was familiar with LAB’s work told her about the bureau’s good working environment and that staff were happy there, she decided to go with her heart.


No typical days


That was four-and-a-half years ago.Today, Ms Tan is an assistant director in the Legal Support Unit.


It is a job with no “typical days”, she says. Each day involves a mix of activities. For example, she could start the day interviewing applicants to record the facts of their case — she sees on average three to four clients a day. Part of her time is also spent conveying instructions and information between applicants and legal officers, who dispense legal advice and represent them in court proceedings. She also drafts commissions and files court documents.


At other times, Ms Tan takes part in discussions and negotiations between divorce applicants and their spouses to help them settle the case amicably. Some of the meetings and commissioning of documents involve trips to prisons and hospitals.


Within LAB, Ms Tan is also involved in various project committees. She is part of the bureau’s publicity and communications efforts, as well as initiatives to improve its work processes and systems — for example, the digitalisation of documents for LAB’s new paperless case management system and the mentoring and training of new legal executives.


Ms Tan, who has a Bachelor of Arts in English Language from theNational University of Singapore, has had to pick up many of her legal- related skills on-the-job.


She learnt essential skills under the bureau’s mentoring system, in addition to informative lunch-time talks which often focus on work-related topics such as mediation, the social service landscape and child protection.


Becoming emotionally resilient


Despite the good work LAB does,Ms Tan admits that the cases often take a toll on her.


She explains: “We have to deal with emotional issues very often and it is saddening and challenging for me to see family relationships breaking down, particularly in divorce and matrimonial cases.


“I often continue thinking about the issues faced by my applicants even after going home. I wonder if there is anything more that I could have done and could do to help them.”


For example, she once encountered an applicant who was seeking a divorce from her habitual gambler husband. He had gambled away more than half a million dollars. In her desperation to help settle his debts, the applicant forged cheques at her workplace. Caught and imprisoned for eight years for criminal breach of trust, the woman entered prison pregnant and had to give birth there.


Her newborn daughter was only two days old when she was handed over to the husband. Upon her release, the applicant was dismayed to find that her husband was still gambling. In addition, he would smoke in their daughter’s presence and hit her to spite his wife, Ms Tan recalls.


While the bureau managed to help the applicant get a divorce with an order for the child to live with her, Ms Tan was affected by the case for days.


Supportive work environment


However, Ms Tan finds solace and good cheer in her network of supportive colleagues and LAB’s good senior management. Seeing lives transformed by their work at the bureau also keeps her motivated and inspired.


She also appreciates that legal executives are entrusted to work independently. This autonomy accords them the freedom to achieve harmony between their work and personal life.


LAB officers also enjoy the flexibility of rotating to other units within the bureau, such as the External Relations Unit and the External Assignment Unit (which manages the files assigned to volunteer lawyers), to experience different aspects of its work.They can also go on job rotations across the various MinLaw divisions.


For those interested in taking on LAB’s mantle, Ms Tan’s advice is to have lots of empathy.


She says: “You have to listen to every story with an open mind. Behind every legal issue, there may be complex family or social issues that the applicant has to deal with.


“I find meaning and purpose in this job. Knowing that I’ve made a difference to the lives of my applicants gives me a great sense of fulfilment that money cannot buy.”


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Permission required for reproduction.

Last updated on 05 Jul 2016