Singapore’s Ministry of Law aims to Strengthen Access to Justice through the Legal Aid and Advice (Amendment) Bill

Singapore’s Ministry of Law (MinLaw) is pushing a Legal Aid and Advice (Amendment) Bill for First Reading in Parliament. The Bill amends the Legal Aid and Advice Act (LAAA), first, to simplify the means test for legal aid; second, to provide greater flexibility for aid to be given to those who fail the means test but have extenuating circumstances; and third, to improve the administration of legal aid. These amendments will help strengthen access to justice.

Civil legal aid is administered by the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB), a department under MinLaw. Set up in 1958, LAB celebrates its 60th Anniversary this year. Since 1958, LAB has received about 400,000 applications for legal aid. In 2017, LAB received about 9,000 applications; most were for matrimonial, claims and probate matters.

The new bill aims to address the following:

  • Simplifying the Means Test for Legal Aid
  • Providing Greater Flexibility to Give Legal Aid
  • Improving the Administration of Legal Aid

Read Full Press Release Here

Welcome address Singapore 2017: Law Society of Singapore, Mr Gregory Vijayendran

Guest of Honour, Senior Minister of State for Finance and Law, Ms Indranee Rajah SC, Deputy Secretary, Ministry of Law, Mr Han Kok Juan, Registrar, Supreme Court of Singapore, Mr Vincent Hoong, Presidents of Overseas Law Societies or Bar Associations, Distinguished Guests and Delegates, Ladies & Gentlemen,

On behalf of the Law Society, it gives me great pleasure to make these welcome remarks at this 6th edition of the International Conference of Legal Regulators. Each and every one of you are part of history in the making. This is the first ICLR instalment in Asia. The Law Society is deeply honoured to jointly organize this year’s event in together with Ministry of Law.

You have already been treated to a welcome address by our Judge of Appeal the Honourable Justice Steven Chong at the welcome reception last night. I echo that welcome once again to all delegates to Singapore ! To all our overseas guests, Selamat Datang!

This year’s conference is themed “Legal Regulation in a Borderless World : Building Networks”. There is no better way to build a network of relationships in legal regulation than during this conference. Key stakeholders from government, regulation authorities, judiciary, bar associations, legal educators are present. I believe this will be an invaluable forum not just during the formal sessions but also the one on one meetings on the sidelines that invariably take place and the informal conversations. We are on different stages of our journey in our own countries with unique challenges. As we exchange experiences and perspectives, we can seed new ideas to sprout in old landscapes.

In these opening remarks, let me touch on five areas covered in the conference sessions on which the Law Society has played an active role. To some extent, this could feel like a teaser. I aim to whet your appetite for the discourse to follow without stealing the thunder from the relevant session. I will touch on technology, AML, attorney wellbeing, professional regulation and pro bono.

First, what we came to listen to : how to navigate the brave new borderless world. I will give you a snapshot of how the Law Society enabled and encouraged the legal profession to adopt technology in the face of technology disruption to the legal profession. Last year, the Law Society completed a strategic consultation on which we collaborated with the Ministry of Law last year. to understand the business models and level of technology adoption by those firms. We received the study report from our consultants, Eden Strategy Institute, towards the end of last year. The study involved 6 participatory focus group discussions and 59 in depth, face to face interviews. The sample population covered the range of small and medium sized law firms’ perspectives across different size and practice area demographics. Let me share two key findings in the study report:

  • First there are good practices that have proven to achieve considerable impact among small and medium-sized Singapore Law Practices (“SLPs”). To cite three examples. Niche expertise and scalable packages attracted a 25% premium in charge rates and a 5x increase in revenue. Going paperless and running a virtual office reduced 66% of the operating costs. Finally, a shared database of precedents and past case knowledge as a means to develop lawyers’ specialized domain knowledge had a 40-50% time saving for the lawyers concerned.
  • Secondly, a critical gap is in innovation. 95% of the participants did not experiment and innovate within their firms, citing a lack of time and resources as key barriers.

Together with our consultants, we drew up an Action Plan supported by Ministry of Law and SPRING. We shortlisted IT solutions that our members from small and mid-sized law firms could adopt with attractive financial support from SPRING. A governmental budget of S$2.8 million was set aside. This new initiative rolled out on 27 February this year. It was called Tech Start for Law. Law firms received funding support of up to 70% of the first year’s cost for baseline technology products in practice management, online research and online marketing. To complement the Tech Start for Law programme, in collaboration with our professional indemnity brokers, Lockton, the Law Society unlocked our education fund to provide a subsidy of 70% of the first year’s subscription costs for an online knowledge database. This was the SmartLaw Assist Scheme.

We held a legal technology roadshow on 27 and 28 March 2017 to showcase these applications for our members. The Law Society managed the whole SPRING application and grant process for our members as a one-stop centre to ensure a hassle-free experience. To that end, we set up a new department in the Law Society called the Legal Productivity and Innovation (“LPI”) Department. They played the valuable gatekeeper role. In addition, to incentivise SLPs to adopt technology, the Law Society recognized SLPs who adopted a practice management/accounting software, an online knowledge management database and had an online presence (whether through a marketing portal or dedicated website). We did so by allowing use of a service mark called “Smart Law” and were permitted to use this on their website and marketing collaterals.

A discerning listener may also be wondering: what about the other hemisphere of cutting edge innovative IT solutions that are transforming the legal landscape elsewhere ? Time fails me to talk about some of the bold initiatives that our Supreme Court have unveiled including the Legal Technology Vision and Future Law Innovation Programme. I will leave Lim Seng Siew, my Exco and Council Member, to share on this during Session 6 tomorrow.

Secondly, Anti-Money Laundering. The Law Society Council agreed to enhance the volume of AML inspections from last year onwards. This was also the profession’s own contribution to help support Singapore’s national interests, bearing in mind our government’s robust stand against money laundering activities. The increase in inspections was also consistent with the approach taken by other regulatory bodies.

AML inspections were carried out at 50 law practices at the end of 2016. This included for the first time a number of foreign law practices. The harmonization of the AML regulatory framework for both Singapore law practices and foreign law firms took place in mid-2015 via the Legal Profession (Prevention of Money Laundering and Financing of Terrorism) Rules.

Overall, the inspection results proved encouraging. Close to 95% of the law practices inspected were accorded a positive assessment. They were found to have proper internal controls and processes to minimise the threat of money laundering.

Apart from the increase in inspections, the Law Society also increased its efforts to enhance awareness of the new AML regulatory framework by covering the subject in greater depth in talks for members as well as for the Legal Practice Management Course for new partners, directors and sole proprietors. More on that from S. Surenthiraraj, the Chairperson of Law Society’s Anti-Money Laundering Committee in Session 2.

Thirdly, one of the cornerstones of the Law Society’s work this year : pastoral care for the profession. We took the opportunity to consolidate existing pastoral care schemes under the Society and launched a new members’ hotline in March 2017. Called the Members’ Assistance and Care Helpline (“MACH”) is aimed at being the first port of call for members for a variety of members’ needs. These include practice mentorship, confidential counselling, defence assistance for disciplinary proceedings, mediation of disputes between law practices and welfare funding for hardship cases. For cases that fell through the cracks in terms of existing care and assistance, they were escalated to Vice President Boon Theng or myself. We personally attended to some lawyers in real time difficulties to offer practical tips and pointers. The aim of our pastoral care programs is to build resilience.

Related to that is our work with young lawyers. Although our youngest internal stakeholders, they constitute a sizable demographic of about one-third of our membership. We held a well-attended forum for our young lawyers this year on 19 July using Chatham House rules. We will annualize this going forward. An important feedback shared during this event by young lawyers was the need for relational mentorship. At the time of writing, we are gearing up for a roll out of a relational mentorship scheme to complement our existing Prac Mentor scheme that provides practice mentorship.

You will hear more from Law Society Vice President, Kuah Boon Theng on MACH and pastoral care for the profession in Session 4 on Attorney Wellbeing his afternoon.

Fourthly, on professional regulation, based on judicial feedback about inappropriate conduct in court, a study committee (participated by key office bearers of the Law Society at the time) recommended (and our Chief Justice accepted) a new regime for “Inappropriate Conduct in Court” (or ICC) regime implemented since 1 September last year. The ICC is more nuanced and proportionate than existing disciplinary sanctions and envisages coaching and counselling remedies. There is a redemptive emphasis in this regime but it is no carte blanche immunity. Lawyers need to reform their inappropriate conduct. More on this legal profession equivalent of a “yellow card” in soccer in tomorrow morning’s Session 5 when I co-present the Singapore regime together with Senior Assistant Registrar, Edwin San.

Finally, pro bono. The Law Society had to navigate major change management this year. The Law Society’s Pro Bono Services Office (a Law Soc Department) morphed into the Law Soc Pro Bono Services (“LSPB”) (a Law Soc subsidiary). This structural reorganisation rationalised, streamlined and enhanced oversight of the Law Society’s access to justice mission. In short, the aim is to do good better as we uphold the highest standards of charities governance via LSPB. LSPB is essentially a CSR foundation for our Law Society that enables better stewardship of the time, talent and treasures dedicated for pro bono. This also allows LSPB to develop its own distinctive branding. Pro bono is still part and parcel of our unique (LS) identity. Lawyers who carry out pro bono services via LSPB are part of the outstretched helping hand of the Law Society. You will hear from Tanguy Lim, our CEO on how we protect the vulnerable and also how our new LSPB will help us do good better,

As you can see from the five areas I touched on, the Law Society of Singapore has played an active role in them. We are one of the key stakeholders regulating some of the important issues in the macro environment that our members are practising in.

In The Lawyers’ Code of Professional Responsibility published by the New York State Bar Association, there is a famous quote “Lawyers, as guardians of the law, play a vital role in the preservation of society”. For Bar leaders present, I would modify that slightly as follows: “Each of you, as guardians of your law society, play a vital role in preserving all that is noble and good in your society”.

For all our guests, I know you will walk away from this event with a rich potpourri of knowledge in this unique conference. For overseas delegates visiting Singapore for the first time or even a second time, I cordially invite you to taste from the cornucopia of culinary pleasures. And to sample souvenirs of your sojourn in multi-racial, multicultural Singapore. We want you to feel absolutely at home in our island home in these few days and more. Wishing everyone present a successful ICLR 2017 conference!