Learning > Inspiration

The Lives They Live: Veteran legal eagle with keen sense of duty

While the pioneer leaders were the architects of modern Singapore, there are many unsung heroes who have helped to shape society here. The Lives They Live is a series which meets some of those making an invaluable contribution.

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Cara Wong on 12 Dec 2018

The Straits Times

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At 87 years old, Mr V. Ramakrishnan is one of the oldest practising lawyers in Singapore, and he shows no sign of slowing down any time soon.

 

The veteran civil lawyer seldom rejects cases that come his way - whether from the Legal Aid Bureau, or other parties in need - and he is currently handling more than 10 cases from the bureau alone as an assigned solicitor.

 

"First and foremost, you must have the desire to help people; when you have that type of mentality, then you accept any cases that come along and you try and do your best within your capabilities," Mr Ramakrishnan told The Straits Times.

 

Yet for most of his childhood and young adulthood, the prospect of being a lawyer had not even been on the cards, coming as he did from a humble background.

 

The oldest of seven children, Mr Ramakrishnan was born in Kedah, Malaysia, to a housewife and a clerk in 1931. His family moved to Singapore before World War II.

 

The war later disrupted his studies for a few years, after which he went to Victoria School to complete them before becoming a health inspector.

 

TRAUMA

It gives you nightmares. You can't sleep because you keep thinking about what you should have done in court, and the client's families can get very emotional over it.

MR V. RAMAKRISHNAN, on why he switched from criminal to civil law.

 

"I never had the inclination to further my studies. I knew my parents couldn't afford it," he said. "My father was only a clerk and he had seven children, so I had to help the family, which I did."

 

He continued in this job for almost a decade but being among peers who had pursued further studies led him to reconsider his career.

 

"My friends were lawyers and doctors, and that gave me the inspiration to continue and do some further studies," said Mr Ramakrishnan.

 

It was then that he set his mind to further his studies, taking his A-level exams as a private student.

 

He seized the chance to go to London to read law with a friend when he was 32, after his two younger brothers found jobs as teachers.

 

"I told them to take care of the family, and then I left for London," said Mr Ramakrishnan.

 

When he returned a few years later, he served an internship at criminal lawyer and politician David Marshall's law firm, where his interest in criminal law grew. "It was like watching an artist doing work. He was a very intelligent man, very meticulous and hardworking," he recalled.

 

But his faith in criminal law was shaken after he was assigned two cases involving capital offences.

 

One was a young man who faced the death sentence for accidentally firing a gun at a policeman, and the other was a mentally unsound man who killed his father.

 

While he managed to help the two men avoid the death sentence, Mr Ramakrishnan was disillusioned by the experience.

 

"It gives you nightmares. You can't sleep because you keep thinking about what you should have done in court, and the client's families can get very emotional over it," said Mr Ramakrishnan

 

In the early 1970s, he switched to civil law.

 

He was determined to provide legal help to the needy, and often took on pro bono cases, as well as cases from the Law Ministry's Legal Aid Bureau.

 

Many clients approached him for help when he started practising law, and he gave advice freely.

 

"I don't come from a rich family. I thought that there were many people like me who were stranded in many ways, in not knowing where to go," said Mr Ramakrishnan.

 

"Some of these people need a lot of legal advice from time to time, and I wanted to come into the picture to help them out."

 

Among his memorable achievements in civil law was a successful appeal to the United Kingdom's Privy Council - the highest court of appeal for certain British territories and Commonwealth countries where, until 1994, appeals from Singapore could be made.

 

A home tutor injured in a bus accident had lost her ability to work and control her bladder, and Mr Ramakrishnan succeeded in getting the damages awarded to her raised from $37,000 to $100,000.

 

In the 1980s, Mr Ramakrishnan took another case to the Privy Council - that of a pedestrian knocked down by a motorcyclist while illegally crossing a road.

 

Although he failed to get a successful judgment in this case, he waived the woman's legal fees as her husband was a "normal chap" who could not afford them.

"I thought injustice had been done to her," he added.

 

Today, the grandfather of five still believes it is his duty to society to keep working to help the needy. About 90 per cent of the cases he handles now are pro bono. He runs his own law firm, V Ramakrishnan & Co, on Cecil Street.

 

"God is keeping me going," he laughed. "It's probably because of all the pro bono work I'm doing."

 

Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.

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