Foreign spouses, sandwich class get legal aid in new scheme

SINGAPORE – May May (not her real name) was at her wits’ end after her husband racked up more than $1 million in debts, resulting in their two children being harassed by loan sharks on social media.

The 40-year-old Malaysian wanted to divorce her Singaporean husband of more than 10 years but could not afford the fees. She had consulted a lawyer and was told it would cost between $3,000 and $5,000.

Due to her immigration status, the long-term visit pass holder did not qualify for assistance from the Legal Aid Bureau, which is available only to Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs).

She was eventually referred by a social worker to a pilot scheme run by the Law Society’s charity arm, and a volunteer lawyer, Ms Wong Soo Chih, helped her go through an uncontested divorce.

“I am very moved by what (Ms Wong) did for me… I hope to repay her some day,” said May May, who has custody of her 14-year-old son and 11-year-old daughter.

She is among 58 foreign spouses with Singaporean children who have received help under the pilot Family Justice Support Scheme (FJSS) since December 2020. Another 52 beneficiaries are individuals in the “sandwich class” who marginally fail the Legal Aid Bureau’s means test but are unable to afford a lawyer at regular rates.

The scheme aims to plug existing gaps and enhance access to justice by providing assistance in family law matters to these two groups who are unable to get help from existing legal aid mechanisms.

It is run by Law Society Pro Bono Services (LSPBS), which will be renamed Pro Bono SG by the end of 2022.

On Wednesday, the scheme was officially launched at an event held at the State Courts that was attended by Family Justice Courts judges, family lawyers, donors, social workers and social service officers.

Justice Debbie Ong, Presiding Judge of the Family Justice Courts, said in her opening address: “The (scheme) will help fill up gaps in our current system to ensure that more individuals are able to benefit from legal representation, including the ‘sandwich class’ of Singapore citizens, PRs and foreign spouses.” 

LSPBS chairman Gregory Vijayendran said the genesis of the scheme can be traced to an idea by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in 2018 to increase access to legal services for those who do not qualify for aid but find it difficult to afford a lawyer.

Ms June Lim, who chairs the committee behind the scheme, said: “As an individual unfamiliar with lawyers or the legal system or even systems in Singapore in general, it can be very daunting for someone to even know where or how to find help at all. This is where the FJSS steps in.”

The scheme connects applicants with a panel of about 60 family lawyers of varying seniority who are willing to offer their services for free or at discounted rates, depending on the applicant’s means.

To date, the scheme has received more than 300 applications, and at least 110 beneficiaries have received help after passing means and merits tests.

The event featured a panel discussion on the challenges, such as housing and financial issues, faced by foreign spouses who are contemplating divorce.

Awards were also presented to the scheme’s top volunteer lawyers, including Ms Wong.

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