Ensuring legal access for the underprivileged

The memory of a heart-rending incident has remained vivid to Assistant Professor Benny Tan, though it happened more than 10 years ago, when he was an undergraduate at the NUS Faculty of Law (NUS Law) serving his internship.

Recalling the scene, he said, “I will never forget how anxious the mother looked. Her fists were clasped tightly, and she was praying quietly.”

That memory has stuck with him all this while as it made him understand that as law students, they often take many things for granted. He shared that he had initially assumed from the lady’s body language that her son was about to be sentenced, probably to a harsh punishment.

It turned out however, that the hearing was to decide on the bail amount which could determine whether the accused would get to go home after that hearing, or he would be kept in remand until the resolution of his case weeks away. To him then, the issue of bail was a relatively unimportant procedural issue in a criminal proceeding.

He recalled, “I learnt from that experience that it meant so much to the accused’s mother, because it made all the difference as to whether she would get to be with her son at home. That made me realise the importance of pro bono work, of trying to ensure as many needy persons out there receive some form of assistance, because we never know how much that assistance would mean to them.”

To me, it is an enormous privilege to be involved in pro bono work. There will always be those in need of assistance, in one way or another, in respect of the law or some aspect of the legal system. And among these persons, there will always be those unable to afford to pay for the assistance that they may require. Pro bono work is a means to help those who may, so to speak, fall through the cracks.
Asst Prof Benny Tan

Moments like this, which can be seemingly miniscule, could be defining in one’s life and career. It made the difference in Asst Prof Tan’s life and fuelled his passion for law and justice.

Asst Prof Tan today is the Deputy Director of NUS Law’s Centre for Pro Bono and Clinical Legal Education (CPBCLE), an appointment he has held since July 2020.

He graduated from NUS Law in 2012 and went on to pursue a Master of Philosophy (MPhil) in Criminological Research from the University of Cambridge, where he was awarded the Manuel López-Rey Graduate Prize for being overall top student across both MPhil programmes offered by the Cambridge Institute of Criminology.

He started his career as a Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP) and State Counsel at the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and gradually ended up at NUS Law as a full-time academic. He currently teaches criminal law, sentencing law and evidence law to undergraduates and is also the course director for the Graduate Certificate in Criminal Justice programme where senior investigation officers are among his students.

A coincidental calling

“It was a coincidence,” he shared. When I left legal service, I caught up, over lunch, with Associate Professor Eleanor Wong, one of my former teachers (now my mentor and colleague). She asked if I might be interested to teach in the faculty’s legal skills programme. I thought to give it a go, went through the selection process, and I guess the rest is history.”

“As an undergraduate, I had never thought to join academia, as I did not think I had the qualifications,” he quipped. “I ended up finding immense passion in teaching, and in doing impactful research.”

Since he joined NUS Law in 2014, Asst Prof Tan has received the NUS Faculty of Law Teaching Excellence Award three times, as well as the NUS Annual Teaching Excellence Award. He began his academic journey as a legal skills tutor, turning into a full-time lecturer and then Sheridan Fellow, before being appointed Assistant Professor on a new Practice Track in May 2021.

He has also published articles in various peer-reviewed journals – with his work cited by the High Court and Court of Appeal of Singapore. Twice in a row, in 2015 and 2016, he won the Best Feature Article prize awarded by the Law Society of Singapore.

Teaching has been an “absolute joy and privilege” for Asst Prof Tan. He lets on that his motto is “impactful teaching, impactful research”. The dedicated teacher strives to ensure that his students pick up skills that will be relevant and useful to them in the working world (well after they have completed his course) and always maintain a keen sense of on-the-ground perspectives. And this includes showing them video clips from Crimewatch during a class on evidence law, as he wanted to give them an “enhanced understanding of how certain rules of criminal evidence play out in real-life.”

Clearly enjoying his work, he said, “It has been a wonderful experience for me learning from my students as well, during class discussions, hearing their views, questions, and insights. I don’t think I am exaggerating when I say that I have looked forward to going to every class that I teach!”

Helping the marginalised

Despite being in academia, his passion to help the marginalised has never waned. Between 2016 to 2018, he has acted, on a pro bono and ad-hoc basis, as defence counsel in criminal cases and appeals. He has also been appointed by the Supreme Court of Singapore to the Young Amicus Curiae panel from 2016 to 2017, where he was called upon to assist the courts in cases involving novel or complex issues of the law.

These experiences, including his time as DPP, have helped him in shaping the pro bono legal programme and in coordinating litigation-based clinics at NUS Law.

“After I joined NUS Law, I wanted to be able to continue to use my legal training and specialisation in criminal law to help accused persons who are unable to afford paid legal representation,” he shared.

“If anything, my experience in acting as defence counsel on a pro bono basis reinforced my beliefs in the importance and value of pro bono work. It certainly allowed me to keep in touch with criminal practice on the ground, and to apply my specialisation in criminal law in an impactful way.”

Big on pro bono projects

So what does the Centre for Pro Bono and Clinical Legal Education (CPBCLE) do?

At NUS Law, students have to complete 20 hours of involvement in one or more pro bono projects, where students make use of their legal knowledge and skills to help less privileged persons, on a pro bono basis. The CPBCLE helps to ensure that there are sufficient pro bono opportunities available for students to participate in.

Asst Prof Tan shared that CPBCLE will oversee and run pro bono projects for students. It also runs legal clinics as academic modules where students who are enrolled in these modules assist practicing lawyers in real-life cases, files and other matters, usually involving clients who are less privileged. These clinics also include litigation-based types as well as clinics that involve corporate-type work such as drafting agreements.

“Offering opportunities for experiential learning and impactful assistance is a huge part of what we do at the Centre. Many of our students are also passionate and interested in being involved in pro bono projects beyond the 20 mandatory hours. So we do our best to make available opportunities to cater to these students,” he said.

Over the years, NUS Law students have been involved in a range of pro bono work. These include helping litigants-in-person, youths at risk, the elderly, migrant workers and voluntary welfare organisations through initiatives such as community legal clinics and Criminal Legal Aid Scheme cases, as well as through facilitating in-person in Deputyship applications. The Centre has worked with a growing number of partners, such as the State Courts, Ministry of Law, Law Society Pro Bono Office, Office of Public Guardian as well as various schools and institutions, to offer such pro bono opportunities to students.

In the past five years, NUS Law students have put in a total of over 60,000 hours of pro bono work. This is an average of about 50 hours per student which Asst Prof Tan says is an underestimate as many law students continue to put in time and effort in doing pro bono work beyond the 20 mandatory hours, but may not formally record them down.

Asst Prof Tan explained, “In one of the projects that I supervise, we had some potential challenges in continuing to run the project and I was beginning to contemplate whether to scale that down and redirect our time and effort to other causes. The next thing I know, the students in the project sent to me a proposal with a well thought-out plan on how to refresh the project and run it long term in a more sustainable way!”

One of the students that he mentored - Ms Tan Yean San - was recently recognised with the 2021 Outstanding Court Volunteer (Student category) Award which recognises individuals who have contributed significantly as committed volunteers with the State Courts and Family Justice Courts. Yean San volunteers under the Student Representatives Programme, a Singapore Institute of Legal Education approved pro bono project run by CPBCLE in collaboration with the State Courts. Besides her core task of assisting litigants-in-person, she was appointed a Senior Representative and managed the cohort of student volunteers, including recruiting new volunteers as well as training and supervising her juniors.

Asst Prof Tan sees the impact that pro bono projects have brought about – both to the beneficiaries and the students. He shared that beneficiaries have benefited from the legal research that the students have done; students also get to put into practice some of the skills that they learn in law school and pick up various soft skills such as client interaction and empathy.

To students who are unsure about doing pro bono work, I would say – just give it a try. In my view, there are not that many things in life more rewarding than being able to voluntarily apply one’s knowledge and skills to assist someone in need of help.  
Asst Prof Benny Tan

Silver lining to COVID challenges

The pandemic has upended the programme in some ways. When COVID-19 hit early last year, many of the pro bono projects had to be immediately suspended because it became difficult for them to be run.

But there was a silver lining – it brought about newfound opportunities. NUS Law students and their partners started to think out of the box, to come up with ways through which the students can continue to provide pro bono assistance to those in need, within safe means.

Asst Prof Tan highlighted some examples, “For instance, we managed to run a number of our workshops and meetings with our beneficiaries online. Our students also had the opportunity to assist in Ministry of Law’s Re-alignment Framework, which was a scheme to provide a quick and fair way for small businesses and individuals to realign and renegotiate selected contracts, in light of the pandemic’s impact. Among other things, our students helped to explain certain legal terms and concepts to those who seek assistance under the Framework.”

Student groups like the NUS Law Pro Bono Group and the COV-AID project team were recognised for the impact that they have made in the community in this year’s NUS Law Pro Bono Awards ceremony. The NUS Law Pro Bono Group had developed a legal handbook for the foreign domestic workers to inform them of their legal rights, responsibilities, and liabilities.

The COV-AID team had launched a one-stop online portal on National Day last year to raise the public’s understanding of Singapore’s rapidly-changing COVID-19 rules and regulations. They also roped in more than 90 students to help compile opinion pieces and conduct interviews with academics and practitioners, who shared their insights on the impact of the pandemic on industries, regional politics and even mental health.

In his opinion, the pro bono culture in Singapore has come a long way since the programme was made mandatory in 2014. More law students and lawyers, in his observation, are interested in, or involved in pro bono work and understand its importance and value.

“To me, it is an enormous privilege to be involved in pro bono work. There will always be those in need of assistance, in one way or another, in respect of the law or some aspect of the legal system. And among these persons, there will always be those unable to afford to pay for the assistance that they may require. Pro bono work is a means to help those who may, so to speak, fall through the cracks.”

“To students who are unsure about doing pro bono work, I would say – just give it a try. In my view, there are not that many things in life more rewarding than being able to voluntarily apply one’s knowledge and skills to assist someone in need of help.”