“When you can help to get someone a fair outcome for their case, you are giving time back to them and their family.” That is what pro bono work means to Ng Shi Yang, CLAS Advocate, Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).
Asia Law Network sits down with Shi Yang to learn how he made the transition from private practice to being a full-time pro bono criminal lawyer. CLAS was established as a ground-up initiative by like-minded criminal defence lawyers in 1985 to legally aid impecunious accused persons. In 2015, the Government announced $3.5 million in funding for CLAS to cover honoraria and disbursements to volunteer lawyers. Aid was now extended to plead guilty cases, as opposed to claim trial cases previously. That year also saw the founding of the CLAS Fellowship (a team of junior full-time pro bono criminal lawyers), funded by the five largest law firms in Singapore. Subsequently in 2016, the Government funded the creation of CLAS Advocate role – a senior appointment to augment and mentor the CLAS Fellowship. Shi Yang was part of the inaugural cohort of CLAS Fellows and is a pioneer CLAS Advocate.
What made you choose to be a lawyer and what drives you today?
There were pull and push factors when it came to choosing law as a university course. I was always interested in crime solving through my love for the Japanese manga, Detective Conan, which I read since I was a primary school boy. The ability to solve difficult problems using cool logic and analysis fascinated me. At the same time, I was resolute in staying away from any examinable subject involving numbers and science. Law seemed like a good compromise. Perhaps as a result of Conan’s influence, I was always particularly interested in criminal law, compared to other areas.
I completed my practice training at Rajah & Tann, and joined WongPartnership after getting called to the bar. In both firms, I trained under senior lawyers who specialised in white-collar crime. Quite apart from the intellectual gymnastics and opportunity to help people, my job allows me to meet and interact with people from a variety of backgrounds. I get to hear their life stories. That is something I enjoy very much about my work.
How did you come about joining Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS)?
WongPartnership is one of the firms funding the CLAS Fellowship since 2015, and so had the opportunity to second one of its lawyers to the Fellowship. My team specialised in criminal law, so my boss asked if I would be interested to be seconded for 6 months to this newly-created Fellowship. I was initially hesitant as I thought 6 months away might affect my progression at the firm. But my then girlfriend (now wife) convinced me it was a great opportunity, and so I went for it.
Although my stint was supposed to be only 6 months long, I ended up requesting CLAS and WongPartnership to allow me to stay the full year. Professionally, the training and experience was fantastic. I first-chaired my matters. At that point, my cases were not so complex, but being able to first-chair a case is a dream for aspiring litigators. This would be difficult back at the firm, as clients would understandably want senior lawyers to take charge of their matters. Spiritually, it was fulfilling to be able to use my professional skills to help someone in need.
I returned to WongPartnership for more than half a year after my stint as a CLAS Fellow. However, it was clear that practice meant something else entirely to me at that point. Unexpectedly, the Ministry of Law announced they would be creating and funding the role of the CLAS Advocate. This was a milestone development for the legal landscape. It was humbling to be offered the role, and an honour to be part of it.
Three years later, I still find it exciting to be a full-time pro bono criminal defence lawyer. Contrary to what people say, I don’t see the job as a noble one, but a necessary one that needs to be done. I believe if you have the skills and means to help, you are obliged to step up. A criminal charge on a person can have a profound impact on not just their own lives, but also their loved ones. When you can help to get someone a fair outcome for their case, you are giving time back to them and their family. A case closed also gives them a sense of stability, and that closure helps them move on.
Since joining CLAS, what is the most significant case you have handled?
I handled a case while I was a CLAS Fellow, where we obtained a fine instead of a jail term. The applicant was also permitted to pay his fine by instalments, because he would have otherwise had to serve a default term of imprisonment.
Some months after the case closed, I bumped into him and his family during my volunteer work. I was happy to learn he was working as a zi char chef, that he was doing well, and was very happy with life. His family was happy too, and I had gotten to know them fairly well over the course of handling his case. Some months after that encounter, I bumped into his wife, mother and 2 young children again, he was not with them. I asked after him, they told me that he passed away recently in his sleep.
I was surprised and saddened by the news. He was only in his 30s, and the case had only concluded just some months back. It was such a sad development, but the silver lining, if it were, was that he managed to spend some extra months with his family living a happy life before he passed. This case often reminds me of why my colleagues and I do this work. Every applicant matters, and more hands on deck means more people can be aided.
What brings you the greatest satisfaction in helping those who need legal aid?
The law is not the easiest thing to understand for most people and can be downright daunting for some. To me, being able to break complex concepts into digestible chunks, to help someone make sense of and navigate the situation they are in, that is immensely gratifying to me.
Do you feel that helping the less fortunate should be a responsibility every lawyer should uptake?
I believe there is an obligation for those in privileged professions to give back. Not just lawyers, but all professions. Give back in relevant ways. For the legal industry at least, it’s easy to see how we can give back with our legal skills. But there are some hurdles which prevent willing lawyers from doing pro bono work.
Take junior lawyers, for example. I interact with a fair number of them. Many express the desire to volunteer, but don’t have the support of their firms to do so. For some, it’s due to billing pressures. In a very big way, Enhanced CLAS has mitigated that concern, since volunteers are paid honoraria for their work on a file. This could be considered paid training. I believe it helps to justify time spent on pro bono work.
Another barrier to entry is when they say their bosses do not practice criminal law and so would be unable to supervise them. We have the CLAS Fellows and Advocates to try to mitigate that by offering to discuss case strategy and give general guidance with inexperienced volunteers, if they require it. This gives them the confidence to see through a case, and often, to grow as a criminal practitioner as well.
What do you find is the most challenging aspect of your work?
Some people believe that pro bono means the quality of representations is lower compared to paid lawyers. We at the CLAS Fellowship would like to believe this is untrue. When an applicant tells us this, probably because he dislikes the advice we have rendered, there is a loss of trust. There needs to be a relationship of trust between the applicant and us. It’s unpleasant to do, but we have to discharge from acting for the applicant if the relationship breaks down this way. It protects us from allegations of professional misconduct, which can be serious. As a person dealing with another human being, having to walk away from someone in need is challenging for me.
If you were to describe your daily work in one word, what would it be and why?
Is 3 words OK? I would say “talk a lot”. There is so much talking that needs to be done. Advising applicants, taking instructions from them, speaking with prosecutors, and of course, speaking in Court. And then we have internal discussions in relation to processes and policies. Since my official working hours are usually spent this way, there is barely any quiet time for me to do research or drafting. I usually do that after official working hours, and at home if possible.
What is next up on your plate?
I believe that CLAS has a lot of room to take on more and grow. Enhanced CLAS is merely in its fifth year. When I say grow, I don’t refer to increased funding from the Government. We can continue to refine our policies and processes, but also see how we can continue to be relevant to Singapore in new ways. I hope to contribute to this growth.
That said, I am always up to challenge myself in new ways, in new environments. I wouldn’t know what new challenges might come my way, but I certainly would relish them if it is for a worthy cause!
Any advice for aspiring pro bono criminal lawyers?
Compared to when I entered practice, there are now options to help you better juggle private practice with some pro bono work. I mentioned some of these mitigating measures earlier.
I would advise young lawyers against jumping in full-time (into pro bono) because of passion. It is a good idea to start in general practice, either as a litigator or corporate lawyer. Do your homework to find a good mentor to practice under, even after you are qualified. Your mentor will determine your basic lawyering skills, which is foundational to your career. Only with a good skillset can you contribute meaningfully in any arena. That includes pro bono work.
A junior lawyer has to be prepared to work hard and communicate well. Being a litigator is about using the simplest words and sentences to communicate the most complex ideas. Communication is in both written and spoken forms. All litigators should continuously hone this skill.
Could you share 3 fun facts about yourself with us?
Maybe something about my work first. Many people think “pro bono” literally means “free of charge”. The full phrase is actually “pro bono publico”. It is a Latin phrase which means “for the public good”.
Well, something about me. I love to sing, particularly Chinese songs. Thankfully my shower has really decent acoustics, so it encourages me to hold concerts in there sometimes. Not so sure about the sound-proofing.
Another thing is that I quite enjoy wearing my navy uniform. My wife likes seeing me in my uniform too. I get a fair number of opportunities to do so. I am called up for reservist training a few times every year. There will be a few low-key trainings, each lasting a day or two. But the main event is a full 3-week overseas exercise. We go incommunicado for extended periods as we are required to surrender our phones when we board the ship. I love being out at sea with my brothers-in-arms. I miss my wife and daughters but other than that there is a certain mental serenity to be able to exercise a different part of my brain during the sea deployment. Every quarter, I also deliver a lecture at SAFTI to the commissioning cohort of officer cadets. I lecture on basic military law. It is made more enjoyable because I am required to be in uniform for the lecture! Probably in another life, I would have signed on to the Navy.
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