Debates about making pro bono compulsory for lawyers continue in Singapore. Under the new proposed scheme, lawyers are required to do 16 hours of pro bono each year. Some lawyers are supportive, but many are unhappy with being “forced” to do pro bono.
The debates go essentially to what it means to be a lawyer. Qualified lawyers hold resources and skills which are in limited and controlled supply, but which are necessary for ordinary people to access the essential public good of justice. Due to the scarce and essential nature of lawyering skills, it is possible to see members of the legal profession as holding a limited form of stewardship over their resources. Such a stewardship would require them to make their resources available, in a reasonable and non-disruptive manner, to the community for public purposes.
More importantly, there is the deeper question of whether the burden of providing the lawyering skills and human resources necessary for legal aid, particularly criminal legal aid, should be shouldered by private lawyers alone. Statistics show that more than one-third of criminal defendants claiming trial do not have legal representation. Currently, the government provides funding for the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offender (LASCO), which applies to capital cases, and the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS), which is run by the Law Society of Singapore. These schemes assign private lawyers to criminal cases. If we as a society believe that justice is a public good accessible to all, the pursuit of accessible justice cannot be left primarily to private enterprise. This is especially important given the fact that poor lawyering is widely acknowledged as one of the reasons for wrongful convictions. If justice is a public good, access to quality lawyering needs to be more strongly guaranteed by the State as society’s ultimate guarantor of public goods. It is time for the Singapore State to establish an Office of Public Defence to complement the pro bono efforts of private lawyers in Singapore.