New community law centre in Woodlands now open, provides legal help for needy residents

Bringing legal aid to those who are not able to travel to the CBD.

Hannah Martens | January 22, 2024, 09:35 AM



Tucked in a corner of the ground floor of a Housing Development Board (HDB) block, a new Community Law Centre in Woodlands will provide free legal help to vulnerable and disadvantaged individuals.

Run by registered charity Pro Bono SG, the Community Law Centre aims to provide or facilitate legal guidance and representation to socially and virtually excluded persons, ensuring no one gets left out.

Pro Bono SG started as a department within The Law Society of Singapore and later became Law Society Pro Bono Services, before it was given its current name in 2022.

"Charity of gaps"

One of the lawyers who will provide legal help, Goh Qian Hui, shared with Mothership that Pro Bono SG was "a charity of gaps", offering assistance to those who do not qualify for other legal assistance schemes.

This includes transnational families, or people who are ineligible for legal aid due to means testing, but who are still unable to afford a lawyer.

Goh said:

"We try to complement existing avenues and plug whatever gaps you can find. And I think the help we render is a very necessary and flexible way of help people as well. We really try to take each person's circumstances holistically to try to plug the gaps."

From left to right: Alice Tan, Goh Qian Hui, Cai Chengying, Sherah Tan. Photo by Hannah Martens.

Goh is a community law fellow who will rotate between the Community Law Centres along with another community lawyer, Alice Tan.

Community law fellow Sherah Tan will be stationed permanently at the Woodlands centre.

The Community Law Centre at Blk 547 Woodlands Drive 16 is housed within the premises of Realm of Tranquility, a local organisation that runs a daily TCM clinic, conducts island-wide food ration distributions, and provides community care for groups like the elderly.

Photo by Hannah Martens.

Photos by Hannah Martens.

Photo by Hannah Martens.

Community Law Centre @ Realm of Tranquility opened on Jan. 19, 2024, and is Pro Bono SG's second such centre.

The first, housed in the Tian De Temple complex at 109 Hougang Ave 5, was launched last year on Jan. 31, 2023 and has helped over 900 clients with a range of legal issues from family matters to personal injury cases.

The two centres also serve as Pro Bono SG's branch offices in the heartlands.

Making legal aid accessible

Pro Bono SG's Head of Community Lawyering, Cai Chengying, emphasised that the Community Law Centre is meant to bring legal assistance closer to where people live.

"You really want to help those facing the most challenges accessing the services," she added.

The centres in the heartlands help those who may not have the means or capability to travel to the Central Business District to get legal aid.

Richard Siaw, the Law Society of Singapore's Pro Bono Ambassador 2022/2023, said, "legal rights are not exclusive to the privileged; and importantly, access to justice should not be a mirage to the vulnerable members of our society."

"The Community Law Centres project serves as the oasis for those sectors of society lacking access to justice," said Siaw, who is also a regular volunteer lawyer at the first Community Law Centre.

Pro Bono SG said there are also "potential plans" for additional centres in the three remaining districts in Singapore to enhance access to justice.

However, this is subject to the availability of funding, and the success of the existing two centres — which Pro Bono SG said it would study carefully.

Legal help available

Pro Bono SG offers legal awareness initiatives, clinic consultations and legal representation, and those in need can register for these services at the Community Law Centres.

While priority will be those living and/or working in each district, the Community Law Centres are open to all.

Pro Bono SG provides their services for free or at low cost, depending on the financial status of those requiring help.

Legal information and guidance are provided for free.

As for legal representation, potential beneficiaries will have to undergo a means test to decide whether payment is necessary on a case-by-case basis.

They will also undergo a merits test, which assesses the strength of their legal cases.

Pro Bono SG provides legal representation through three schemes:

Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS)

CLAS offers free legal counsel for those facing non-capital criminal charges who do not qualify for assistance under the Public Defender's Office, such as foreigners. CLAS also provides basic legal guidance through criminal legal clinics.

Family Justice Support Scheme (FJSS)

FJSS assists those facing matrimonial matters who do not qualify for assistance from the Legal Aid Bureau (LAB).

It also offers assistance to litigants who marginally fail LAB's mean test but are not able to afford a lawyer. Pro Bono SG volunteer lawyers will then offer their services at a reduced rate.

Ad Hoc Pro Bono Scheme (AHPBS)

This is a referral-only scheme that provides free legal representation for the needy and vulnerable who do not qualify for any other legal aid schemes but still require legal assistance.

In order to qualify for legal representation, all applicants will have to undergo merits and means testing.

Community Law Centre @ Realm of Tranquility

Address: Community Law Centre @ Realm of Tranquility, Blk 547 Woodlands Dr 16, #01-177 S(730547)

Email: [email protected]

Hotline: 1800-776-2666

Operating hours: Monday to Friday, 9am-12pm and 2pm-5pm. Closed on weekends and public holidays.

Top photos via Hannah Martens