Senior Counsel Harry Elias, who founded Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, dies aged 83

Senior Counsel Harry Elias, who founded Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme, dies aged 83
Harry Elias was among Singapore's best-known trial lawyers and the founder of one of Singapore's leading law firms, Harry Elias Partnership.
PHOTO: The Straits Times file

SINGAPORE - Local law giant Harry Elias, who was the founding chairman of the Law Society's Criminal Legal Aid Scheme (CLAS) some 35 years ago, died on Wednesday (Aug 26).

He was 83. His wife Thelma, 73, said he had a long illness, and died in hospital.

Senior Counsel (SC) Elias was among Singapore's best-known trial lawyers and the founder of one of Singapore's leading law firms, Harry Elias Partnership.

The firm released a statement on Thursday expressing sadness at the passing of its founder.

Managing Partner Philip Fong said: "For our firm, Harry was our founder, leader and mentor. For our profession, Harry was the epitome of a fearless and first-class advocate. For our society, Harry was a trailblazer with lasting legacy.

"For us personally, Harry was a true friend, a teacher and a kind and generous soul. We are honoured to have walked with him for a part of his impactful life."

Law Society president SC Gregory Vijayendran said the greatest legacy Mr Elias left is that he gave justice to the weakest in society, adding that the CLAS is the Law Society's crown jewel.

"In the corridors of time, Harry Elias' name will forever be inextricably linked with the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme that provides access to justice for the indigent," added SC Vijayendran.

Born in Singapore in 1937 and educated at St Andrew's School, Mr Elias went to London in 1960 to read law, graduating in 1963 and qualifying as a barrister at London's Middle Temple.

In a Facebook post, the St Andrew's Alumni noted his various contributions, achievements and honours.

"He was the driving force behind the Criminal Legal Aid Scheme that enabled thousands of people to obtain legal representation otherwise beyond their means," it said.

He never forgot the financial assistance he received from St Andrew's School, which facilitated his education there, and had been a supportive alumnus for decades.

SC Elias was president of the Alumni from 1995 to 1997.

The alumni said he was instrumental in changing its name from St Andrew's Old Boys Association to St Andrew's Alumni, in order to include female students who were in the pre-university classes of yesteryear.

Mr Elias first started as a lawyer in Kuala Lumpur in 1965 and returned to Singapore in 1970, joining the firm Drew and Napier.

In 1988, he founded his own practice, Harry Elias and Partners, which was later renamed Harry Elias Partnership.

He also served as Law Society president between 1984 and 1986.

Mr Elias was motivated to set up the CLAS after reading figures on the number of low-income Singaporeans at that time.

He took on the scheme's first case, securing the dismissal of charges against a woman accused of stealing milk for her baby.

As the scheme's founding chairman, he enlisted lawyers and corporate sponsors to contribute time and money.

Mr Elias, who was made Senior Counsel in 1997, was conferred several accolades over the years, including the Law Society's CC Tan Award in 2005.

The award recognises members of the Singapore Bar who have demonstrated honesty, fair play, personal integrity and courtesy.

In 2013, he was conferred the Public Service Medal (Pingat Bakti Masyarakat).

Former Law Society president Peter Low said Mr Elias inspired him and Mr George Lim, then young lawyers at Drew and Napier, to later become Law Society presidents.

"He was highly ethical and very personable," said Mr Low.

Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan said the Bar has lost another legend, describing Mr Elias as kind, razor-sharp and forthright.

"I will miss his wisdom and treasure the little moments I was fortunate to have with him."

Added SC Vijayendran: "Doyen of the Bar, gentlemanly litigator, formidable cross-examiner, legendary lawyer, affable mediator.

"These are only some, not all, of the epithets that come to mind when we remember Harry Elias SC.

"There is now a void in the Law Society with this sad loss but his fingerprints will be everywhere, notably in the civil and criminal litigation Bars.

SC Elias is survived by his wife, his daughter and her husband and granddaughter, and two stepchildren.

His son Jeremy died about nine years ago, said Mrs Elias.

The funeral for SC Elias will take place Thursday afternoon.

This article was first published in The Straits Times.

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