SINGAPORE - Next month, welfare organisation Jamiyah Singapore is taking its 37-year-old free legal clinic online to reach out to more people and volunteer lawyers.
Called iCounsel, the virtual clinic will use webcams to allow lawyers - at home or in the office - to dispense advice to clients, who can access the service at certain centres.
Dr H.M. Saleem, one of Jamiyah's three vice-presidents, said he believes the online service could be a first in Singapore.
Speaking to The Sunday Times, he said iCounsel, which is open to everyone, will help meet the "perceptible increase" in demand for Jamiyah's free legal counselling.
He declined to reveal figures.
He said: "It can help us reach out to clients who live far away from us, and encourage lawyers, some of whom want to volunteer but can't because they lack the time to travel, to offer their services on a convenient platform."
Currently, both lawyers and clients need to go to Jamiyah's headquarters in Geylang, where the hour-long free clinic is held twice a week, on Wednesdays and Saturdays.
One to two lawyers on duty see up to 10 clients at each session.
Clients who call in to register sometimes have to wait for a later date if the session is full.
When the iCounsel portal is launched, applicants can register for legal advice online and provide details of the case and their preferences - such as a Malay- or Mandarin- speaking lawyer, or one conversant with syariah law.
Jamiyah will then match clients with its pool of volunteer lawyers and help arrange an online session.
iCounsel will initially be available only at the Jamiyah headquarters, so clients will still need to make their way down to its premises at 31, Lorong 12, Geylang to access the online services.
Jamiyah is planning to roll out the iCounsel service at its satellite centres islandwide after next month, before linking up with voluntary welfare organisations and grassroots organisations to provide the service at more centres.
"It may soon be as easy as crossing the road, or going down to the community centre for legal advice from our lawyers," said Dr Saleem.
iCounsel will start off with a team of five lawyers but there are plans to expand the panel and get more young lawyers in particular on board.
Mr Pratap Kishan, a volunteer lawyer with Jamiyah since 1999, said that although most of the old hands in the pool of volunteer lawyers are willing to give up their time and travel to the HQ, the online platform could help motivate younger lawyers, who may be particularly pressed for time, to come forward.
The face-to-face legal clinics will continue even after the online scheme is launched.
Both services deal with a variety of legal issues, from marital matters to tenancy problems.
The clinic has served 11,200 people since it opened in 1976, when it was the first free legal clinic in Singapore.
It started off with only a "handful of lawyers", said Dr Saleem but has grown into a 21-strong team.
It was during a review of its legal clinic scheme early last year that Jamiyah's members felt more could be done through technology.
Said Dr Saleem: "In line with the development and progress of Singapore society, we have to upgrade our facilities and services."
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.