Sunday, 17 February 2013

Lawyer's past spurs his pro bono work

Ex-teen rebel and alcoholic turned his life around by studying law
By Joyce Lim, The Straits Times, 16 Feb 2013

WHEN he was a teenage rebel, Mr Josephus Tan feared that his delinquency would land him in prison one day.

His biggest fear of going to prison came true four years ago, but he did not go as a convict. It was to meet criminal offenders and to offer free legal services to them.

Mr Tan, 33, a criminal lawyer with Patrick Tan LLC, spends almost every Saturday morning meeting prisoners for his pro bono work representing them in court.

From murderers and drug addicts to young gangsters and mentally ill offenders, Mr Tan hears their pleas and sorrows.

"Very often, as their lawyer, I am their first and only line of help," said Mr Tan.

One of his clients was a 19-year-old girl who was charged with robbery in 2010.

"When I first saw her in prison, she was seven months pregnant. She was afraid to be in prison and was trembling and crying as she told me about her case," said Mr Tan.

"Her parents were divorced and it was after much persuasion that her father agreed to bail her out. But he refused to let her move in with him. I had to arrange for her to stay in a teenage shelter and borrowed my relative's maternity clothes for her.

"Everybody needs somebody to believe in them and with them."

The merits of a proposal by the Law Society to make pro bono work compulsory for young lawyers have been widely debated, but Mr Tan is clear about wanting to do it, because of his past.

He said: "When I see the helplessness and despair in the eyes of underprivileged offenders, I am glad to be a source of support for them, even before any legal work has begun. My work is a mission to me, to ensure that everybody is given a chance to right the wrongs in their lives."

Mr Tan, who is married with no children, grew up in a three-room HDB flat in Telok Blangah with parents who were blue-collar workers.

He recalled his days as a rebellious teenager who became alcoholic. He said: "I hung out with street-corner gangs and often got into fights. Whatever trouble there could possibly be, I would be a part of it.

"I did badly for my O levels and my results could get me only into a secretarial course at the Institute of Technical Education. So, I enrolled in a private school to study for my A levels, which I failed to complete."

He later found a job as a computer salesman. Aimless, he turned to alcohol, often going into a rage at home.

Once, he assaulted his family members after drinking. "For the first time, my father slapped me hard. He said to me, 'You're hopeless', and I broke down," said Mr Tan.

That slap marked a turning point. He took up an external diploma in law from the University of London at a private institution here and was determined to change his life by studying hard, he said.

To finance his one-year law diploma, Mr Tan took up odd jobs. Once, he found himself washing the toilets of a law firm with two Bangladesh workers. He later used his diploma to gain entry to the University of Southampton where he read law. In 2007, he returned to Singapore to complete his pupillage under prominent criminal lawyer Subhas Anandan.

He was called to the Bar in May 2009, and now spends a third of his time on pro bono work. Last year, he clocked 1,700 hours on cases he picked up from the Law Society's Pro Bono Services Office, making him the lawyer with the most pro bono criminal cases.

Last December, Mr Tan was appointed by the High Court as a lead counsel in the Legal Assistance Scheme for Capital Offences. He is also the Law Society's co-chairman of the 2013 Law Awareness Project.

His wife Elly, who is in her 30s and works in the finance industry, said he has found passion and purpose with this work.


When I see the helplessness and despair in their eyes, I am glad to be a source of support for them even before any legal work has begun. To me, my work is a mission –to ensure that everybody is given a chance to right the wrongs in their lives.

– Mr Josephus Tan

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