Pro bono crusader

Pro bono crusader
PHOTO: The New Paper

When she was young, Ms Sujatha Selvakumar's mother had her enter storytelling and oratorical competitions, which evolved into participating in debate competitions in her secondary school and junior college.

Doing law as a career felt like "a natural progression" for her.

What Ms Selvakumar, who turns 31 this year, enjoys most about her job is using her skills to help people.

"It's a unique skill set," she said. "If people have a specialised skill set, they should use that to help the community."

But practising in a law firm was stressful, especially when she had to constantly think about the business angle, like key performance indexes and billing clients. The late nights were not easy on her either.

After spending four years with Straits Law Practice, Ms Selvakumar decided in June last year that it was time to take a break. She spent a few months travelling, visiting places ranging from South America to Europe to India, and returned to Singapore in October.

She came back ready to explore different options in terms of the next step in her career. That was when she came across an e-mail from The Law Society on the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) Fellowship, where they were looking for practising lawyers to be engaged by The Law Society for a year. Stationed at the Pro Bono Services Office, these lawyers work full-time to represent accused persons who cannot otherwise afford legal representation.

Despite her salary being lower by 30 per cent, Ms Selvakumar, who did her degree and master's at the University of Manchester, signed up for the Fellowship, got shortlisted and is now one of the five lawyers who are part of this scheme.

She believes that the CLAS Fellowship, launched by Minister for Law K. Shanmugam earlier this year, is the closest thing that Singapore has to a public defender's office.

"To me, it felt like a great way to be paid for doing what I enjoy most: Practising and helping people," explained Ms Selvakumar, who was with CLAS as a volunteer lawyer and was part of its ad hoc pro bono scheme while she was at Straits Law Practice. She also helped out at legal clinics held at various community centres, giving brief legal advice to those who needed it.

The law firm is an advocate of pro bono work, which is legal work that a lawyer does at no cost or substantially reduced cost. "The firm's ethos was that you should go out and do as much pro bono work as you possibly can," she said, adding that it was up to the individual to manage their workload.

For Ms Selvakumar, whose master's degree focused on corporate governance, the kinds of cases she handles under the CLAS Fellowship are very different from what she was doing at Straits Law Practice.

Previously, she handled civil litigation cases, where she represented companies and individuals who could afford the high legal fees. Under the Fellowship, she deals with people from a different segment of society altogether.

She explained that CLAS aims to represent those who have fallen through the cracks and cannot afford legal representation and, for many of these people, "criminality is only the tip of the iceberg" in relation to the problems they might be facing.

She went on to explain that these accused may have mental illnesses or social welfare issues that give rise to criminal behaviour.

She gave the example of a case that she took on in January which involved a man with a fetish who cross-dressed in female undergarments and was caught exposing himself in public. He was previously imprisoned for similar offences. He sought help from CLAS and, following psychiatric evaluation, they realised that he had been sexually abused as a child and that his father had committed similar acts, which gave rise to his mental illness.

"That being the case, we tried very hard and the charge was reduced - he had the maximum fine of $2,000 for the reduced charge imposed on him instead of incarceration. He was very happy, and his wife, who was aware of his psychiatric condition, was also very happy because he didn't have to go to jail," she said.

She added that he voluntarily started going to the Institute of Mental Health for treatment and, so far, he has not committed any offences.

She cites this as one of her most satisfying cases.

It is not just legal work that occupies her time, though. Ms Selvakumar is also actively involved in the community, volunteering at the grassroots level through legal clinics and assisting at Minister for Law K. Shanmugam's meet-the-people sessions in Yishun and Chong Pang. She is also the vice-chairman of the SINDA Youth Club.

It is clear that helping the community is important to her.

Ms Selvakumar is driven by a sense of responsibility. She believes that if she is in a position to make a difference, she will.

"We're only as strong as the weakest person in our society, so we all have to make an active choice to look around and help each other. We can afford to be a kinder, more compassionate and more sympathetic society, and that is the kind of society I want to live in," she said.

"If not me, then who?"

bhavnav@sph.com.sg


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