Law Society chief happy to pass on baton

Contingency fees, access to justice and access to counsel - these are key areas that the Law Society will help to shape and move in the public interest landscape here, said the society's president, Mr Thio Shen Yi, as he prepares to hand over the job next month.

Mr Thio, who is also a Senior Counsel, made it clear the society is bigger than any one leader because there is continuity in the form of the governing council.

He said he was fortunate in that he, his successor Gregory Vijayendran and predecessor Lok Vi Ming are all "very much aligned on the big issues".

"Our styles differ, the way we approach problems may differ, but what we are trying to do in the long run is very much aligned - we're trying to improve and develop and raise standards of the entire profession," he said.

Among other things, he said the society has recommended to the Law Ministry that a contingency fee scheme be put in place for access to justice cases with such deals inked between clients and lawyers subject to its approval. "This will ensure an actual check against profiteering in civil cases," said Mr Thio.

In contingency fees, a lawyer's remuneration is directly dependent on the outcome and a client does not pay if he does not win the case.

"The check will be the Law Society because the contingency could be, 'I am going to take $10 from my client, but if I win, I am going to take all the party costs and I'll take 5 per cent of the winnings.' "

He said that would be huge in percentage terms as "a cut of the winnings could be a 200 per cent uplift on a lawyer's regular fees".

"In the corporate world you can stake contingency fees in the sense that you have an abortive fee, if the deal doesn't go through, and you have a fee if the deal goes through. You can structure your fees like that," he noted.

The move would encourage people with bona fide cases to go to court, Mr Thio said.

He steps down at a time when lawyers face increasing challenges of revenue, fee pressure and eroding profit margins; technological changes and practical challenges. But the challenges should not detract from the gains which the society can be justifiably proud of, he said.

He singled out the achievements in the society's pro bono work and the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS).

There are now junior lawyers funded to manage and shore up the scheme of volunteers but this will get a boost with the Law Ministry's agreement to fund two senior lawyers, which he hopes will take place next year, he said.

"This is a major development in our access to justice story. Other countries may have a public defender's office, we are very happy with our public-private partnership, the Government funds what we do, we provide the volunteers. Law firms also contribute funds, so this year one of our highlights was a concert where we raised about $768,000 for our pro bono programmes."

While pro bono work has done "very well", early access to lawyers for detained suspects is a work in progress.

"The Law Society should realise that we are not going to change the Government's mind all of a sudden.

"The principle is that someone should have a lawyer, so the only question is how long does the accused person have to wait.

"Right now, we think that the balance is a bit too much in favour of the investigating authorities, and we should roll it back a bit. We also recognise that sometimes the investigations need time, and they need the freedom to investigate, so it's a balance."

Deeming it an "honour and privilege" and "deeply fulfilling" to be president, he suggested the phrase, "(that) 'the least enviable job in the legal profession' ought to be retired because we've been blessed with so much support and goodwill".

On stepping down after serving two terms, Mr Thio said: "I promised my wife I would stop at two."


This article was first published on December 5, 2016.
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