Opening Address by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong SC at Launch of the Community Law Centre
31 January 2023 Posted in [Speeches]
Mr Gregory Vijayendran SC, Chairman of Pro Bono SG
Mr Richard Siaw, Managing Director of R S Solomon LLC
Mr Raymond Wang, Chairman of the Tian De Temple
Ladies and gentlemen
- A very good evening to everyone. Let me start by giving all of you very warm wishes and most importantly, a healthy Lunar New Year.
- I am very heartened and so happy to be here for the opening of the Community Law Centre (CLC). I think this is certainly a milestone event and one that we as a community can look forward to. And those who are responsible for setting it up and performing the services at the CLC will look with pride that today, we have set it up.
II. ENHANCING ACCESS TO JUSTICE
- The heart of Pro Bono SG’s (PBSG’s) new initiative at the end of the day is about enhancing access to justice.
- Access to justice is an important, fundamental pillar in our justice system. What does access to justice mean? Well, put very simply, it means that people who need to seek recourse and remedies from our legal system for their grievances, to service their claims, can find that access when they need to.
- It is one thing to have a first-class legal system, but that first-class legal system must also be accessible to everyone.
- My Ministry firmly believes in this mission and we continue to work hard to advance access to justice.
- In Singapore, we provide legal aid for those who may not be able to afford legal assistance, but must go to Court to resolve their legal issues.
- To provide legal assistance and representation for more needy accused persons, my Ministry recently established the Public Defender’s Office, and also expanded criminal defence aid coverage, so that more people can fall within the scope of coverage and we genuinely enhance access to justice.
- All of these measures go towards ensuring that access to justice remains at the forefront of our mission at the Ministry of Law.
- We will continue to work with the key stakeholders in our ecosystem to do so, to make refinements to our system and our coverage, to ensure that this access is not just extended to people, but is kept current and meets the current context, norms and demands.
III. COMMUNITY LAW CENTRES
- One such example is this new initiative by PBSG.
- Today we are here to talk about the newly established CLCs. The CLCs will further enhance access to justice by making that access accessible, by locating in the heartlands, by being in a place where people feel comfortable going to.
- Earlier, I had a chat with our law advocates at the CLC. They told us that even before it was opened, people already peered into their window and asked how they can be helped, what services can be performed. I think this is the hallmark and essence of the CLC, to be located in a place which people do not feel uncomfortable or out of place, and they are able to freely walk up to the CLC to ask for assistance.
- Also for the first time, there will be full-time community lawyers serving the community through the CLCs. This will be eventually embedded in all five CDC districts.
- These lawyers will be able to provide legal advice and assistance on a whole range of legal issues.
- For example, individuals who live in Hougang and the surrounding neighbourhoods can now seek legal support at Tian De Temple instead of having to travel downtown to their lawyer’s office, which could be much further away. So it is not just access in the sense of being able to access the legal system and legal assistance, but access from the aspect of convenience, in the heart of where you live.
- The larger aim of this initiative is to be able to provide integrated legal care to residents by addressing both their legal needs and also on issues that go beyond legal issues. Very often, pro bono lawyers who serve in the community will tell you that the problem people face when it comes to a legal problem, is not just the legal issue they are confounded with. Oftentimes, the legal problem is a manifestation and a symptom of a deeper, more important, perhaps social issue.
- That is why this integrated care is necessary.
- Often, these individuals, as I said, are not just face legal issues but also financial ones, family difficulties, or social issues. These issues often go beyond the legal realm.
- So the CLCs help to plug this gap.
- CLC lawyers will work with other organisations and partners within the community to provide a holistic solution, working to provide a network of support, perhaps from:
(a) Family Service Centres,
(b) The Ministry of Social and Family Development’s Social Service Offices, and
(c) Other Social Service Agencies that reside in the community.
- The CLCs will work with them and integrate them into a network to provide more holistic end-to-end support. The CLCs will also support community professionals in the social service sector, such as social workers, through:
(a) Legal workshops,
(b) Providing legal advice on their clients, and
(c) Referring them or their clients to the right avenues of legal support that is required.
- Earlier today, I was told that even before the CLC opened, people already called up. All they need sometimes is for people to handhold them, to navigate the process, to put a phone call through, explain the problem and perhaps connect with a Chinese or dialect speaker. The beneficiary or care recipient can then better understand and carry on, on his or her own, thereafter.
- In doing all these services, looking at the services, networks and partnerships holistically, the CLCs strengthen the legal as well as the extra-legal support provided to individuals in the community
- Let me give one example where the CLCs will provide advice.
- As some of you are aware, the Government has been reviewing the Community Dispute Management Framework (CDMF) on how we manage neighbourly disputes between one another and how do we prevent it from escalating to even more serious problems.
(a) We will go upstream to set clearer norms on neighbourly behaviour and what we expect as pro-social norms and so on.
(b) We will go midstream to increase the uptake of community mediation, which has so far been very successful. We want to encourage neighbours to try out mediation. In the hands of a good mediator, even the most intransigent and basic community dispute could be resolved.
(c) We will also go downstream for those cases which are perhaps more intractable, or maybe one party or both could be unreasonable and unable to resolve this. Then, we will study enhancements to the Community Disputes Resolution Tribunals (CDRT) to give affected residents faster and certainly more effective relief.
- We recognise that making all these avenues of recourse available is one thing, but how do people understand, navigate and access all of these structures and the framework. How do they get advice on what to do when there is a neighbourly dispute. And very often, it is also not just a legal problem as I said earlier, but one that is also emotional. You are after all dealing with a neighbour, and you come across him/her and their family everyday. So for instance, they will ask questions like ‘What is mediation?’, ‘What does it means?’, ‘Am I bound if I agree to something like mediation or is it without prejudice?’, ‘How do I explain my concerns and my troubles freely to the mediator?’, and ‘How do I prepare for a CDRT hearing?’, which as you know, you go in without lawyers to keep costs down, and to ensure parties have equality of arms. But sometimes people feel nervous about going before a tribunal.
- So this is where the CLCs can play a role:
(a) Having community lawyers provide advice, navigating the system, understanding what the right redress is, which channels to go to, what kinds of possible remedies can one find during mediation and at CDRT. All of these will be something that CLC lawyers and advocates can advise on. As far as possible, the CLC will encourage residents to pursue a solution that does not mean one side loses but to seek mediation where both sides can win. Both sides can prosper and continue to develop their relationship as neighbours.
(b) In the most complex of cases, the CLC will also consider legal representation for parties.
- That is just an example, and there will be many more. I am sure when you chat with our advocates and PBSG, they will give you other examples of when the CLCs can step in. But really, the idea behind it is to be the link between law and other social agencies that provide an end-to-end holistic solution. That is what the CLC can do.
- To conclude, I invite all who are present here today to continue to enhance access to justice in your own ways. Many of you are lawyers or work in the social service agencies. Many of you are ultimately connected in one way or another to the community. I believe everyone has a role to play in making justice a lot more accessible. You can:
(a) Volunteer your time and expertise to the CLCs – they will value it tremendously;
(b) Contribute financially to the CLCs; or
(c) Seek like-minded individuals or organisations, join a network to promote a cause and to advance interests of the beneficiaries of the CLCs.
- Finally, to all of those who have stepped forward to support this venture and place your faith in what PBSG has sought to do, I thank you very much. Today’s launch would not be possible without your kind, generous, wholehearted and encouraging support. So thank you very much to all of you.
- I wish you a pleasant evening ahead.
- Thank you.
Last updated on 31 January 2023