Straits Times Feb 9, 2008
Clients throng Law Society's free clinic
1,100 people have sought legal advice on personal issues since Community Legal Clinic opened its doors last September
By Radha Basu
SOME come for advice on how to deal with marriages gone sour. Others want to recover unpaid loans. Yet others wonder whether they would have a leg to stand on if their employment dispute went to court.
In the five months since it opened its doors, a free clinic for those seeking legal advice has been inundated with more than 1,100 clients.
Run by the pro bono service of the Law Society, the Community Legal Clinic is open four nights a week and serves as a first contact point for people wondering whether a dispute or grievance they have could stand up to scrutiny in court.
The society's pro bono service director Lim Tanguy told The Straits Times that the clinic was set up to help more poor and middle class people gain access to justice.
Even a half-hour consultation with a lawyer can cost anywhere between $300 and $1,000 depending on the complexity of the case and the seniority of the lawyer.
While there are several other free legal services scattered across the island, most are available only once or twice a month, said Mr Lim.
'Our frequency makes the scale of this Community Legal Clinic quite unprecedented.'
The clinic provides advice on personal issues only - as opposed to corporate cases - and applicants must come to the clinic in person.
In order to accommodate the maximum number of people possible, clients can use the services only once per case.
Seventeen law firms are currently volunteering some of their top professionals to run the clinics, which are held at the North West and South East Community Development Councils.
For lawyers such as Joycelyn Lin and Foo Siew Fong, who volunteer at the clinic, the biggest eye-opener has been the steady stream of women who walk into the clinic seeking advice on marital problems.
Many do not know English, are unemployed or in low-income jobs and in their 30s and 40s.
'They have been used and abused, but are often clueless about their rights,' said Ms Lin, an associate with the legal firm KhattarWong.
Ms Lin, for instance, has encountered clients who were battered by their husbands yet had no idea that they could apply for a personal protection order that could shield them from abuse.
Ms Foo, a partner with Harry Elias, has also seen several 'sad' cases of women seeking free advice on whether they should dissolve a bad marriage.
'Many of them worry that just because they do not work, they may not be given custody of their children,' said Ms Foo, who also heads the Singapore Association of Women Lawyers.
Their worries, of course, are unfounded, since courts decide custody based mainly on a person's parenting ability rather than earning power, she said.
Women whose marital problems continue even after divorce are also flocking to the clinic.
Madam Siti Habib, 32, for instance, sought help after her husband stopped paying child support, even though she was looking after four of their five children.
'I was looking after four of our five kids although my ex-husband had official custody of two of them,' said Madam Siti, who asked that her real name not be used. 'And when I remarried, he simply stopped paying.'
On the advice of the clinic, Madam Siti has now applied to the Syariah Court to get custody of the fourth child.
'Once that comes through I will reapply for maintenance for all four kids,' says the freelance makeup artist. Going to the clinic, she said, helped her 'clear her doubts'.
But women are not the only ones turning up for help with marital issues.
Logistics manager Harry Tan - whose name has also been changed - sought advice at the clinic after his ex-wife prevented him from seeing his 14-year-old daughter more than once every two weeks though both parents shared custody of the child.
Lawyers at the clinic told the 45-year-old that he would have a strong case if he approached the courts.
'I promptly relayed their advice to my wife, and she agreed to let me see my daughter more often,' said Mr Tan. 'I did not even have to approach the courts.'
Those interested in signing up for free legal advice can call 6536-0650.