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Speech by Mr Edwin Tong, Senior Minister of State for Law & Health, at the MOU Signing Ceremony for Arts in Continuing Legal Education (“ARTICLE”) and the 4th Annual NUS Pro Bono Awards

Posted in Speeches

Professor Simon Chesterman, Dean, National University of Singapore Faculty of Law;
Lei Theng, my classmate;
Dr June Yap of the Singapore Art Museum; I’ve also been at SAM for a very long time. I was a student of SJI, which SAM is now occupying, a place that holds many fond memories for me and a place that I’ve since been back, when it became SAM.
Many friends, members and students of NUS Law School.


Good evening.

 

Introduction

 

1. Thank you for having me here today. NUS Law and the Ministry of Law share a very long history working together to provide Pro Bono legal services to those in need. I think those of you who’ve been following our policies at the Ministry, listening to what we’ve been doing, and following closely to the policies that we’ve put in place – we value Pro Bono services as one of the key pillars of access to justice, and it certainly is the hallmark of a mature, working, and first class legal system. I want to thank all of you for playing such a big role in this, not just the students, but of course, NUS, for the thought leadership you’ve taken in pushing the boundaries. Signing today’s MOU represents that yet another milestone that you’ve achieved.

 

2. Then-SMS Indranee, my predecessor, was present at the first Pro Bono Awards, some years ago in 2016. Today, I am happy to be here to witness this fourth edition of the Awards.

 

MOU for Arts in Continuing Legal Education (“ARTICLE”)


3. I was a student at NUS Law almost 30 years ago. At that time, we learned about the law through lectures, mugged the cases – I used to borrow her (Assoc Prof Lim Lei Theng’s) notes. We spent our time shuffling from one tutorial to another, took part in moot court experiences, competitions, and so on.

 

4. But today, I think the way in which Law is taught is so much more vibrant, so much more practical. Students today, just by listening to the experiences the two emcees have shared, learn the law by going out there into the community even before you become full-fledged lawyers, to help people gain access to justice – and rightly so.

 

5. The practice of law is entirely practical. It’s the practice of Law we’re talking about; we don’t study it just to sit in an office somewhere. We are serving the needs of the society and the community. I think there’s really no better way than to cut your teeth by being part of this programme, and being party first hand to the kind of experiences you would have as a lawyer eventually.

 

6. So, we see many students go out here and do pro bono work. You go to court with professors, who guide you, mentor you and also work on cases: real cases for real people with real needs, and with real outcomes, through the Legal Aid Bureau.

 

7. NUS Law has made these opportunities accessible to students via the Clinical Legal Education.


a. Since 2009, students taking the legal clinic module have been working with their professors in legal aid, at the Legal Aid Bureau.


b. They have served recipients of legal aid on a variety of cases: civil law, and obviously, family issues do come to the fore.


c. Students were able to apply the law as they have learnt it, put it in practice, and develop practical skills.


i. Managing the client, which is a skill that really needs to be experienced, or learnt through experience, rather than through any kind of structure.


ii. Dealing with court deadlines, which is again, something that has to be experienced rather than told about;


iii. and of course, drafting court documents and correspondence, and seeing, more importantly, how the drafts you’ve done actually pan out in practice when it is argued about or argued over in court.

 

8. In the 10 years of clinical legal education, students and staff have handled more than 600 legal aid cases in the Supreme Court, the State Courts and the Family Justice Courts.

 

9. I am also pleased to witness the expansion of Clinical Legal Education beyond just litigation. Litigation of course used to be the one area that used to attract a lot of legal pro bono attention, but I think, less so now, and the attention is a lot more evened out as we’ve heard our two emcees describe. Since 2017, the programme has expanded to corporate work –

 

a. And students and staff have been working with charities, including homes for destitute and low-income persons requiring long term or residential care, and organisations that support persons with mental conditions. 


b. Under the supervision of Faculty members and qualified lawyers, students assisted in giving advice on agreements, drafting agreements, structuring the agreements, and also on corporate governance.


c. So, in fact, beyond just expanding into the corporate arena, it is really pro bono services and legal advice expanding into the society, where it belongs. 

 

10. Today’s MOU with the three partners – the Singapore Art Museum, the National Gallery, and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, I’m very grateful for your participation and your generosity – is a new milestone. This is the second Clinical Legal Education MOU, after the first one between Legal Aid Bureau and NUS Law in 2010.

 

11. All three institutions involved in this MOU are registered charities from the arts sector, and Institutions of Public Character, or IPCs. They have to deal with legal issues in their day to day work, and they do require support, and as I’ve heard from Dr Yap, they really appreciate the support that they get.

 

12. The MOU establishes Arts in Clinical Legal Education, or ARTICLE – it is indeed a very catchy acronym. It is an expansion of opportunities for clinical legal education into the arts, and through this programme, NUS Law students will be exposed to new areas of legal practice – from intellectual property to financing, and of course, personal property law as well.

 

13. The breadth of skills offered by Clinical Legal Education has been beneficial to students’ learning, and in the future, their professional development as well. Many students here today, including the two emcees, Charmaine and Chee Yang, were both involved in the corporate clinic.

 

14. Other students, like Joel Leow, have worked with the National Gallery on the legal niceties of bringing a travelling exhibition to Singapore, while Phua Shi Lin had worked on an exhibition of art works under the Yellow Ribbon project. You may have seen some of the works on display at the foyer outside – I think some of them are also on the table over there – purchased by Associate Professor Ruby Lee, Co-Director of the Centre for Pro Bono & Clinical Legal Education.

 

15. This is an additional step for NUS Law towards innovations in legal teaching, and I sincerely congratulate Dean Simon Chesterman, NUS Law, the Singapore Art Museum, the National Gallery, and the Singapore Tyler Print Institute, for a job really well done, and certainly I look forward to the fruits of this collaboration.

 

Pro Bono Awards


16. Today, we will also recognise the leadership of NUS Law students in pro bono work. This is the 4th year of the Pro Bono Awards, as I mentioned earlier.

 

17. We are celebrating the achievements of 8 outstanding student leaders in pro bono, and I certainly echo what Dean has said earlier, that it’s not for the prizes that you do pro bono work, it’s for the philosophy, the spirit, and certainly the dedication and compassion for society, that propel students to put their time beyond their books and beyond the pressures that they face every day, into pro bono work. I very much congratulate all of you on this achievement.

 

18. I am very impressed by how active students have been in pro bono activities. I’m told that in 2017, NUS law students clocked a total of – and this is a number that you should take note of – 11,847 hours in pro bono work. That is not something that you do for a prize. That’s something you do from the heart, because this is an average of 50 hours per student, far exceeding the mandatory minimum of 20 hours.

 

19. I am also happy to see the initiative and ownership students demonstrate. The pro bono activities at NUS Law are largely student driven.


a. An example is the NUS Pro Bono Group, the largest and oldest student-run pro bono group in Asia, so besides being the top law school in Asia, you’ve also got the largest, and also oldest student-run pro bono group.


b. Another student-run initiative is the Criminal Justice Club, which runs the Recourse Initiative, the Singapore equivalent of the Innocence Project. The Club has now amassed more than 100 student members.

 

20. I am so glad to see that the pro bono spirit at NUS Law is going strong. And indeed, there’s evidence of it going from strength to strength. This certainly would not have been possible without the leadership of the students, in collaboration with the faculty.

 

21. There is also a special award to recognise an outstanding supporter of the NUS Law students’ efforts in pro bono – the Pro Bono Mentor Award. And the Award this year goes to Mr Ranjit Singh. Thank you Mr Singh.


a. Mr Singh is a former Military Prosecutor of the Singapore Armed Forces. Mr Singh has provided invaluable advice and mentorship to the Military Justice Project’s work on the Defending Officer Guidebook.


b. It is an ambitious project, which intends to provide a comprehensive guide on military law and procedure for Defending Officers in the Singapore Armed Forces.


c. Mr Singh was also a guest speaker at the Military Justice Project’s annual Roundtable Conference 2018, and spoke on the developments in the military legal system in Singapore.

 

Conclusion


22. I extend my heartiest congratulations to the award recipients, and I encourage you to treat this as a milestone, not as an endpoint. There’s so much more that can be done, not just doing pro bono work yourselves, but also taking stewardship of the projects and eventually, when you come into practice to continue with the pro bono spirit, continuing to give back to society. I hope your drive to contribute to the community will continue well beyond your legal education, and not only for yourself, but also to inspire your peers and others around you.

23. To the students, all of you have worked so hard to earn your places at NUS Law. It is a privilege and an honour to study at the highest ranked law school in Asia, and I’m so proud to be an alumnus as well. Through the examples of your peers and alumni, I hope you see that reading law goes beyond just securing a place for a training contract or getting a place in a top law firm, but that you continue the true spirit of what being a lawyer means to society.

 

24. The true meaning, I think, comes from giving back to the community, increasing access to justice, which, as I’ve mentioned, is really a cornerstone, pillar of our legal system. I hope you can raise legal awareness, awareness to legal society, and awareness on what it means to others to be giving back to the community.

 

25. You help charities with their legal work, some charities can afford it, many others cannot, but these charities go on with the work they do, and it’s very heartening to see the pro bono services extend to them.

 

26. So finally, to the student leaders who are recognised today, my heartiest congratulations to all of you. To everyone else in the pro bono ecosystem, and to the faculty, my warmest congratulations. Thank you very much.
 

 

 

[1] Assoc Prof Lim Lei Theng, Co-Director, Centre for Pro Bono & Clinical Legal Education

 

[2] Dr June Yap, Director (Curatorial, Programmes and Publications), Singapore Art Museum

Last updated on 12 Apr 2019