Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law & Health, at the Launch of Law Awareness Weeks @CDC 2019 On Wednesday, 04 September 2019 at Keat Hong Community Club
Chairman Mayor and Host Ms Low Yen Ling,
Mayors Ms Denise Phua, Mr Desmond Choo, and Dr Teo Ho Pin
Grassroots Advisor to Fengshan GROs, Ms Cheryl Chan
Board Member of Law Society Pro Bono Services, Mr N Sreenivasan SC
Ladies and gentlemen,
1. Every time I listen to Sreeni , I learn something new. Tonight is no different. It happens, even when we are co-counsel on the same side, in the same case. When he speaks, I still learn something new. So tonight, thank you very much for sharing the history on our efforts to ensure access to justice in Singapore.
2. There is a message behind what Sreeni has said, and it is crucial and important. It is not just about raising awareness, which is the theme, but also about empowering people. That is what people in this room do. When you give advice, when you counsel, and indeed, when you comfort, you are empowering the person by putting in him the ability to decide for themselves, with the little knowledge of the law that he gets from you, how to navigate the problem, what the solutions are, what his options are, and choose a course of action. So it is very important that you continue with this.
3. I will say a few words about access to justice, because as far as the government is concerned, it is an important criterion, and a fundamental pillar of our society. To me, it is also a measure of how far we have come as a society, how mature we are as a society, how caring and compassionate we are as a society, and we measure that with reference to the accessibility we have, to the man in the street, to the justice system. There is no point in having a first-world justice system, top rankings all the time, rule of law, major Conventions happening in Singapore attended by people from around the world, when our own citizens are not able to access the justice system. That is a fundamental motivation that we have, when we design our laws. And I will just ask you to indulge me for a moment while I take you through some of the key features of what I regard as improving the access to justice, what else we would like to do, and how we partner with our community, people, all of you as stakeholders, to do so.
4. Over the years, we have done much to enhance that access. It includes working with the judiciary to enhance court process; those of you who practise in court often would know that over time we streamlined the process, made it easier, made it simpler, and try to make it as far as possible, cheaper for the litigant, or someone who has to defend a case. We enhanced frameworks to ensure that Singaporeans can also resolve their disputes quickly, because instead of going to court to deal with a case which is a win or lose, you can consider mediation, which is often win-win, and our mediation success rate at the Singapore Mediation Centre (SMC) is about 70%. So if you can find a solution out of court, by mediation, it is a win-win solution. You preserve the relationship, you find, in the midst of that dispute, a common ground that allows you to carry on with your life, and a process and a conclusion that you are happy with.
5. Many of you will know that in the last couple of years, the Civil Justice Commission and the Civil Justice Review Committee set up by the Supreme Court and the Ministry of Law, have recommended various reforms. Let me just quickly outline a few. We have simplified the court forms to make it easier to navigate, easier to understand, easier to fill up, and this allows people to do it on their own without lawyers as far as possible. We have also introduced forms for pleading common types of cases that benefits litigants-in-person.
6. For family justice, we paid particular attention because it affects a family and children are often involved. It is a fight that actually neither party wants. Custody, divorce, those are issues which are not only a legal dispute in court, but also highly emotional, and fundamentally affects the person and the family. So we streamline the process and we take away the adversarial process from the system, as far as we can.
7. Changes have by large been well-received. But can we do more? I think we can. In fact, just this morning in Parliament, Mayor Denise Phua stood up, asked a question which I had to answer. She asked about access to justice. She asked, “What can we do to improve the ability of the individual to go and file for letters of administration when there has been a death, a bereavement in the family?” Sometimes it is a small family, small estate. To us, it may be a small estate. But to them, it is a lot. How do we simplify the process and make it easier, cheaper, so that they potentially do not have to navigate the process with a lawyer? I said in Parliament today, and I repeat it here, that we are looking into the process, how we can streamline it, how we can simplify it and make it cheaper, easier to do, and without the hassle. Because very often, when you put in these requirements, the family has to go to a lawyer, and sometimes the costs outweigh the benefits of doing it, and that is not access to justice. We want to take steps to simplify that, make it easier, and make it more accessible.
8. Second, we have also enhanced Civil Legal Aid. Let me explain. Since its establishment, Legal Aid Bureau (LAB) has received about 400,000 applications for legal aid. That is a significant number. In 2018 alone, the Bureau received more than 9,500 applications for assistance, of which 90% passed the means test. The means test is something that we have to put in place because otherwise, you will just be over inundated with requests. The means test is there. But I think we sized it correctly – we have 90% of all applicants who passed the means test. That tells us we are on the right track in terms of where we set the bar for the means test.
9. Additionally, we will be updating and simplifying the means criteria to shorten the application process for legal aid as well. The means test today includes looking at what the disposable income is. A few months ago, we passed in Parliament an amendment, so that we do not have to look at disposable income.  We do not have to require a family to tell us how they spend their money, which is sometimes inconvenient, and also oftentimes a little demeaning to ask the person to go into an everyday list of expenditure. So we streamlined that by looking at simpler proxies and simpler defaults such as the annual value of the home and also the per capita household income which helps to even out the process. For example, in the event that you have a significant breadwinner in the family looking after other family members, all of that is taken into account in the per capita household income.
10. In addition, the amendments that we have introduced, which will come into force hopefully by the end of this year, will also give a degree of discretion, which currently we do not have. Our hands are tied when the means and various tests are not passed. So there is now some discretion to be exercised, of course judiciously, given that these are public resources, but this allows us to have a bit more flexibility in the kind of cases that we can offer our assistance to. LAB itself has streamlined and made itself more efficient and more accessible to persons by going paperless, with a new case management system that allows aided persons and their lawyers to access their cases on an online portal more easily. It facilitates the assistance, both from the legal service providers’ end, as well as from the legal service users’ end as well and LAB plays that important role.
11. LAB has also introduced a screening tool designed to track applicants who are suffering from social problems. The thinking behind this is if you come to LAB for legal assistance, it is sometimes a proxy for a deeper and more significant social problem. So with this tracking system and tracking device (not that we want to intervene in every case, and not every case can be assisted), we try and red flag those that allow us to play a bigger role than just offering legal assistance. LAB is in fact trying to expand that a bit more. When we check that someone is in need of other forms of assistance beyond just legal assistance, we bring in the other social services and social networks that we have in Singapore.
12. Next, let me touch on Criminal Legal Aid. The Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) started in 1985. It was a ground-up initiative by Law Society and its volunteer lawyers at that point of time. I think this is a point I will keep coming back to about the volunteer lawyers, because as you can see, it is really the heart and soul and lifeline of the pro bono system. In 2015, the government started funding enhanced CLAS, putting in more resources and working with firms to help with the scheme. We worked closely with Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS), the Criminal Bar, as well as the Courts directly to enhance the scheme. With these, the number of persons who received full representation in 2018 grew to more than 1,500, almost four times the number of cases that was assisted by the program before the enhancement to CLAS was launched.
13. Both LAB and CLAS would not have been possible without the volunteer lawyers who have devoted their time and effort to taking the cases. Indeed, the foundation of our pro bono schemes rests on the dedicated and selfless efforts of our many volunteers.
14. Fourth, our Community Legal Clinics (CLCs) which Mayor Low Yen Ling has touched on, I will say a little bit about it. Besides legal aid provided directly or funded by the government, the LSPBS, the Community Development Councils (CDCs), the People’s Association, as well as the broader legal community have also made significant contributions. One such example is the birth of the CLCs. The CLC program has expanded over the years. And I think you have heard Yen Ling and Sreeni mention them earlier. What I do want to say is that the CDCs and CLCs have been able to do more, reach out more, and assist more people, mainly because the number of lawyers and volunteers have grown. The numbers you have heard from Yen Ling earlier. And I will not repeat them save to say that there were 380 lawyers, and 275 first-time student volunteers in 2018/2019. That is a not insignificant number, when you consider the cohort of students who are in our universities. That also represents a 6% and 10% increase respectively of both the lawyers as well as the students.
15. It is the same for Law Awareness Weeks – this is something that is important. It is a program that is growing more popular. I think Sreeni mentioned this evening as a platform for recognising our volunteers and I agree. I think however you regard a little photograph, or certificate, it is a small, but hopefully significant way of recognising our volunteers and that is important. The other benefit of this is again, as Sreeni says, that the press picks up this and puts it out there so that people become more aware, because part of what we do is not just to help, but to ensure that our help is known to people, and people know where to find assistance and the broad spread of topics that we now cover. That is one way of ensuring that the man in the street facing these kinds of common problems can find occasions to learn more about it.
16. The one initiative that is new that will be introduced shortly is to deal with it in the medium that is more commonly used by people nowadays, whether you are young or you are old. That is the digital platform. So we have digitalisation really affecting most of us now. We read much of our news and information now online, through social media and so on. So it is with this kind of audience in mind that the CDCs and LSPBS partnering with IMDA and PIXEL will now launch a series of webinars where legal talks are held, and then uploaded online. You do not actually have to be physically present; you can go online, and you can understand, study and take note of what has been discussed. For a start there will be three webinar topics, the first on debt management (whether it is on credit cards, claims on credit cards, gambling). Second, family issues, again, as I mentioned, sometimes a very difficult issue to navigate, with a focus on divorce proceedings, and of course, lastly, the Good Samaritan initiative, as well. So three broad topics chosen because these are the focus needs of the community.
17. I would illustrate it with one example. There was a taxi driver, his name is Seng Huat. He was someone who was addicted to gambling, and ran into huge debts which invariably turned his life and also the life of his family members, completely upside down. His wife was deciding to leave him after a sustained period of time. However, he had a pastor who managed to persuade the wife to give him a second chance to let him turn over a new leaf. He has since done so, overcome and kick the gambling addiction, put his family affairs back in order, put his focus back on his family, and now, through the experience, both he and his wife are active volunteers with Arise2Care. He is in fact now training to become a counsellor to help gambling addicts.
18. People who have gone through the experience, and come back and serve in that capacity sometimes have the most compelling message. CDC will also be partnering with other stakeholders: LSPBS, the National Addictions Management under IMH, Arise2Care (as I mentioned earlier), the Blessed Grace Social Services, Jamiyah, and of course National Council of Problem Gambling (NCPG), to discuss how we can help these individuals and to extend the help proactively rather than to be reactive, and to deal with the problem that sometimes is already irreversible.
19. With the webinars, Singaporeans can also attend and participate in live panel discussions online, because law is sometimes something which you need to ask questions about or raise queries. This is helpful because sometimes people are shy or a bit more reserved and do not want to raise their problems publicly. Besides individuals facing legal issues, family members and friends of people who face such issues can also tune in to that. I think that is the advantage of the webinar series. It plays into the theme that Yen Ling mentioned – helping you to help others – because it is really necessary for the community to help one another, to address legal and social problems.
20. Finally, I want to touch on the network that we have. The system that we have, the ability to help so many people is really only possible when we have a stable, strong, and certainly very generous and giving set of stakeholders. We have the efforts of so many organisations, just look around, you all come from different organisations, different stakeholders. We also have the National University of Singapore (NUS), the Singapore Management University (SMU), and the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS). I think SUSS has student volunteers here tonight. I hope you join me in just showing our appreciation for their presence.
21. The presence of our students is not just a good source of manpower, feet on the ground. There is also the more serious message that we imbue in our young students – a culture of pro bono and volunteerism from the time they are in school, and to know that this is what the calling is, this is what it means to be a lawyer, this is what it means to be of service to the community. So I end off with two quotes to share with you.
22. The first is from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as you know, the first woman on the US Supreme Court, and she said this: “Certainly life as a lawyer is a bit more complex today, than it was a century ago. The ever-increasing pressures of the legal marketplace, the need to bill hours, to market to clients, and to attend to the bottom line, have made fulfilling the responsibilities of community service quite difficult. But public service marks the difference between a business and a profession. While a business can afford to focus solely on profits, a profession cannot. It must devote itself first to the community that it is responsible to serve. I can imagine no greater duty in fulfilling this obligation. And I can imagine no greater pleasure.” I think that aptly summarises what it means to be a volunteer, what it means to be part of this group of people in this room here, giving back when you can, working beyond the hours, beyond the call of duty and taking pride and joy in seeing someone get back on their feet because you are able to help with their legal problem.
23. I have focussed on what it means for stakeholders to be giving back to society. I just want to read something else to you with your indulgence. This comes now from a beneficiary of the legal service, the pro bono service. I am reading a letter which was sent. It is a case I was involved in in some capacity, but it was sent after she had experienced pro bono assistance. This is what the lady said. She said: “A year ago, my son was passed in a Court Martial. He did wrong. But it was due to depression and much humiliation by his campmates. We were totally lost. I was advised to look for someone who has experience with Court Martial proceedings as the military is not easy to deal with. I chose someone who was offering the pro bono service. And at the very first meeting, I already felt very comfortable talking to them. Truthfully, I know my son's case would be in good hands as both have shown great professionalism during the meeting. The lawyers walked through the very difficult time with me and my family, they not only deal with this case professionally, they also shared valuable advice and experiences with my son. We appreciate that very much. Never once did the lawyer show any impatience whatsoever, and always responded to our queries promptly. And that is very important to us as we did not feel alone. Throughout the proceedings, we were clearly aware of what was going on. A competent and well trained lawyer who has compassion is more crucial than the one who has dealt with countless cases of Court Martial before in the past. And that's what I've come to learn. I do not know how to express my gratitude towards them. But save to say a very big thank you.”
24. That is what goes through the mind of a typical recipient of the services that you all provide. This is the kind of impact you have, not just on the individual, but on the family and certainly within the family, the greater society that we all live in. So on that note, I want to thank you all very, very much from the bottom of my heart for the work that you put in, for the volunteerism spirit that you have shown, and long may it continue. I hope that you will be able to pass this on to the generations that come after you as well.
25. Thank you very much.