My experience in the clinic taught me that civil cases are no less emotionally charged and demanding than criminal cases. In fact, assisting foreign domestic workers to pursue civil claims after periods of abuse imposes a huge responsibility on us to be as sensitive as we can. That said, assisting a worker in claiming monetary compensation goes at least some way in helping her vindicate her rights as a victim.
– Tan Zhen He, NUS Law Undergraduate
In the Fall semester of 2015, the NUS Law Faculty offered for the first time an elective clinic module focusing on employment law and low-income migrant workers. The clinic was a partnership between Justice Without Borders, HOME, Professor Jaclyn Neo and Senior Lecturer Sheila Hayre.
Over the course of twelve weeks, five upperclassmen worked closely with Justice Without Borders and an expert local lawyer to prepare two live cases for litigation. These cases involved domestic workers whose employers had been convicted in criminal court for various acts of abuse. While the criminal cases were close to concluding, these clients still had outstanding compensation claims.
In fact, one faced return to the Philippines when the criminal process against her employer ended. Without the cross-border lifelines to legal aid that JWB is building, her case would be unlikely to continue when she returned home. Through our partnership with the NUS law clinic, her claims became one of the pilot cases we are supporting to develop the know-how needed to make cross-border litigation possible for all victims of exploitation.
The clinic highlighted many of the logistical issues faced bringing such cases. These included collecting the information needed before an individual returns home, making sure that clients remain accessible to provide affidavits and evidence in a way that is admissible in Singapore courts even after they return home, and preparing a case while up against the time pressures of a client’s imminent departure. The cases also raised legal problems, such as the limitations period to bring a civil claim that continues to run even while the criminal case proceeds.
The clinic was also an opportunity for third and fourth year law students to cut their teeth on live cases while still in law school. On his experience with the legal clinic, fourth year student, Lee Wei Liang said, “Throughout this process, I have picked up practical legal skills and acquired a familiarity with the legal issues commonly faced by migrant workers. I believe that this experience will be invaluable when I handle my own pro bono cases as a lawyer in the future.”
Fellow student Hoang Trang echoed this sentiment, finding the clinic invaluable for the opportunities it gave her to interact with clients and get involved in the civil litigation process, even before graduation.
I will never forget the interactions I have had with my supervisors and classmates, as well as the pro bono lawyers, caseworkers, and migrant workers that I met over the course of this semester – all these people have touched and inspired my life in important, indelible ways.
– Lee Wei Liang, NUS Law Undergraduate
While these cases are still underway, we look forward to documenting and sharing the lessons learned once the cases conclude.
Charmaine Yap is a Pro Bono Coordinator at JWB, and a law student at the National University of Singapore. She is one of the co-authors of JWB’s Singapore edition of the Practitioner’s Manual for Migrant Workers, and helps coordinate our four-country strategic legal research working group.