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Tracing the roots of our legal system

English law was first introduced to Singapore 180 years ago Singapore, 30 November 2006 – One hundred and eighty years ago on 27 November 1826, King George IV of England put his seal on a document that would change the course of Singapore’s legal history.

This document, known as the Second Charter of Justice, first introduced a single system of law and order for all inhabitants of Singapore and established a proper legal system based on the English common law.

To commemorate this historic event, the Singapore Academy of Law (SAL) has published a monograph, written by Judge of Appeal Justice Andrew Phang, which traces the origin of the Charter, its subsequent ”offsprings” and its lasting legacy on our legal system.

The monograph “From Foundation to Legacy – The Second Charter of Justice” was officially launched by Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong today.

Dire need for the Charter The Second Charter was a much needed document to resolve the legal chaos that existed in Singapore from 1819. While Penang had a Charter of Justice since 1807 (the First Charter of Justice), Singapore was a “legal blackhole”.

In the absence of a uniform governing law, native chiefs were charged with settling disputes among their own people. While local laws were applied to the respective Asian populations, the British civilians were not subject to any legal regime. Dr John Crawfurd who took over the government of Singapore after Raffles’s departure in 1823, appealed to the Crown for a Charter of Justice for Singapore but this was not granted until 1826 after Singapore was united with Malacca and Penang to form the Straits Settlements.

Based on the little correspondence that exists, it would appear that the Second Charter was drafted by the legal counsel for the East India Company (EIC) as it would have been in the EIC’s interest to introduce
legislation to consolidate their economic position.

The Second Charter was proclaimed on 9 August 1827 and one of the first legal formalities established was the Rules of Court. Court hours were fixed from 10 am to 3 pm and a table of fees was set.

The Charter created the Court of Judicature of Penang, Singapore and Malacca. The court itself consisted of the Governor, three Resident Councillors and a Recorder as judges.

The first court was held on 22 May 1828 and at this first session, 27 indictments were presented to the Grand Jury of which six were found guilty of murder, one of manslaughter and the rest for cases of assault and offences against property. In two of the murder cases, the culprits were sentenced to death and executed.

The Charter was officially “retired” when the Singapore Parliament passed the Application of English Law Act (AELA) in 1993. The AELA made our law independent of subsequent legislative changes in the UK and set the stage for the development of a legal system in Singapore that is sensitive to the needs of the local environment.

Even though none of its original content remains applicable today, the Second Charter has left a lasting legacy. “Without the Second Charter, there would be no Singapore legal system,” wrote Justice Andrew Phang in his monograph. “It constituted the foundation upon which the Singapore legal system as we know it today was painstakingly constructed and developed over almost two centuries.”

In his Foreword to the monograph, From Foundation to Legacy – The Second Charter of Justice, Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong noted that the Second Charter “when it was first introduced was totally alien to the majority of the peoples that had migrated to and settled in Singapore.” But our leaders had the foresight “to appreciate and accept that what was alien is not necessarily inalienable.” The common law that we inherited from England “as augmented and improved by legislation is also the foundation of justice in our society.”

Note to editor:
Justice Andrew Phang, 48, was appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court in December 2005, and appointed Judge of Appeal in February 2006. He was a professor of law and chaired the department of law in the Business school of Singapore Management University (SMU) before he was made Judicial Commissioner in January 2005. He has published extensively in both local and international journals and is the author of several books and monographs including The development of Singapore Law – Historical and Socio-Legal Perspectives; Basic Principles of Singapore Business Law; and the local edition of Cheshire, Fifoot and Furmston’s Law of Contract.

About SAL
The Singapore Academy of Law was established in 1988 under an Act of Parliament as an institution to develop and uphold a collegiate spirit among the legal profession. The Academy has more than 5,000 members comprising all advocates and solicitors of the Supreme Court, the Singapore Judiciary and Legal Service officers, in-house counsel and faculty members of law schools. The President of the Academy is the Honourable the Chief Justice of Singapore. The Academy is actively involved in providing consultancy, facilities and the infrastructure to develop the legal profession. Besides its role as the
legal reporting agency in Singapore, the Academy’s other functions include providing continuing legal education for its members, legal publications,promoting legal research and scholarship, the reform and development of the law and alternative dispute resolution.

Fact Sheet
· To commemorate the 180th anniversary of the Second Charter of Justice, the Singapore Academy of Law’s Legal Heritage Committee launched a search for the original copy of the Charter this year. Relevant documents discovered in the UK National Archives appear to confirm that the East India Company had sent a petition to the Crown for the Second Charter and had appended a draft Charter to the petition.
· The Charter was probably first sent to Penang which was then the headquarters of the Straits Settlements.
· There were three Charters of Justice that were applicable in the context of the Straits Settlements. The first was promulgated in 1807 and applied only to Penang and this was prior to the acquisition of Malacca and Singapore by the British. The Third Charter promulgated in 1855 effected a re-organisation of the courts of the Straits Settlements.
· Judges were then known as Recorders. The Recorder who was based in Penang was to travel on circuit to Malacca and Singapore.
· The first Recorder, Sir Thomas Claridge refused to leave Penang on disputes on travel expenses. As a result, Mr Robert Fullerton, the then Governor of the Straits Settlements was compelled to hold the first court session with Mr Kenneth Murchinson, Resident Councillor.
· The decision of the Recorder, who was the only
professional judge, could be overruled if the other
members acted in concert. The exercise of this power often rankled with the Recorders who were, after all,
professional judges.
· The Second Charter established a mechanism for the
appointment of agents or attorneys and they were not
subject to any formal qualifications. These law agents
were essentially part-timers and jack-of-all-trades, largely drawn from the merchant class and they acted both as commercial advisers and advocates.
· The Second Charter directed judges to administer the law based on “justice and right”. This was in turn interpreted by the judges to mean that they should apply the English common law as well as principles of equity. Today, the common law is still a fundamental part of the Singapore legal system and is also used in many other Englishspeaking or Commonwealth nations including Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia and much of Canada and the US.

Foo Kim Leng (Ms)
Corporate Communications Manager
Tel: +65 63325365
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