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Opening Speech by Justice Lee Seiu Kin, Chairman Lawnet Management Committee at the LawNet 20th Anniversary Dinner

Speaker: The Honourable Justice Lee Seiu Kin
Date:
2010-11-10T00:00:00+08:00

The Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong,
Judges of Appeal and Judges of the Supreme Court,
Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

 

Introduction
1. A very good evening to all of you, and welcome to the LawNet Twentieth Anniversary Celebration. It is heartening to see so many members of the legal community here tonight, in support of LawNet, a service that has helped to bring the practice of law in Singapore into the 21st century. Today, LawNet sits on the desktop of over 90% of advocates and solicitors practising in Singapore. In addition, LawNet is available to all legal officers in government, corporate counsel and is free of charge law students in our universities. The entirety of the written laws of Singapore, along with judgments of the Court of Appeal, High Court and Subordinate Courts, are available from any computer with internet connection from anywhere in the world 24/7. LawNet also contains MLJ, The Law Reports and WLR from the ICLR, as well as Australian and NZ cases from AUSTLII, Indian Supreme Court Reports and, as of last week, Hong Kong cases from HKLII. Complementing the primary materials are Parliamentary Reports and local legal journals published by the NUS Law School, the Law Society and the Academy. Law firms and universities have generously provided nuggets of notes and commentaries from their legal updates. Today, legal practitioners in Singapore do not need a hard copy library for their primary material. They do not even need to be in office to carry out legal research.

 

Transforming legal practice through technology
2. The story of how we arrived at this position begins with the computerisation project of the AG's Chambers in the late 1980s. I somehow got entangled in the project, and so I can tell you the story as someone who was there when it happened. At that time, every legal officer in the AGC was issued with a set of Statutes and the librarian was tasked with updating them. As the number of lawyers grew in AGC, the librarian, Mrs Mary Tan, realised that her staff would soon be unable to cope with the fast rising number of sets of Statutes issued out. Being of a rather enterprising nature, Mary persuaded the powers that be to include in the upcoming computerisation project, an electronic Statutes database which would be accessible by all officers in AGC via the proposed internal computer network. The benefit to Mary was that she needed only to update the database once for every amendment to the Statutes and that would provide an up-to-date version of the primary legislation of Singapore to all AGC officers. It did not require a great leap of logic to realise that the same service could be provided to the public at large at very little additional costs and thereby help amortize the investment. Bear in mind however, that this was the pre-Internet era - a time that many in this room today would find difficult to imagine. Remote access to the Statutes database would have to be via dialup modem - at a stately14.4 Kbps! This is an unbearable crawl by the standards of today, but the data was pure text, uncluttered by the fancy images and fonts that we are used to now, so the speed was close to what we get today, even if the view was basic text. We found a suitable partner in Singapore Network System (SNS), the predecessor in title of Crimson Logic. SNS already had a dialup network complete with telephone help desk for the much larger TradeNet system and we were able to leverage on this. So we entered into a partnership with SNS; they would host and market LawNet for us. SNS and in its new garb, CL, has been with us since we launched LawNet in 1990.

 

3. I would like to tell you how we came to choose the name LawNet. At the time Lexis was already well established, and we thought, what a nice name for a legal database. So we put on our thinking caps for a similarly cool name. The Statutes database was about the law, so although "lex" is more subtle, it was already taken, and perhaps "law" would have to be used. We were delivering the laws online through the SNS network, so why not combine “law” and “net”? LawNet sounded good, we did a search on Nexis (there was no Google at the time) and found the word had been used by a group of lawyers in the USA to refer to their network of law firms; it had nothing to do with electronic legal databases. We decided that it was sufficiently remote in concept and space to enable us to adopt the term. To boost the cool factor, we combined both words form a hybrid term, and capitalised both the “L” in law and the “N” in net. And that was how the name LawNet was born.

 

4. But that was just the AGC statutes database system. The development from merely offering the AGC Statutes database to a broad system of encompassing the needs of the legal practitioner was due to the serendipitous combination of right person, right place, right time. Robin Hu, now Senior Executive VP, SPH, was then the National Computer Board (NCB) manager in charge of the judicial & legal cluster of the government computerisation division. Robin is what I call a solution looking for a problem. His mind bristles with ideas and when our Statutes database was comissioned, Robin proposed a network of not just the Statutes database, but also a number of other services for the legal sector. One was what is now known as Intereq: Integrated Requisition System. Intereq would pull together all the information a conveyancer required from various government agencies in order to carry out due diligence in a property transaction. Under the aegis of LawNet, then under the charge of AGC, not only could Intereq leverage on the dial up network with SNS, more importantly, AGC along with the Registrar of Land Titles, could be the driving force to mesh together the diverse systems and requirements of IRAS, LTA, URA, BCD, Ministry of the Environment. This would result in up to 8 separate legal requisitions being dealt with through a single electronic requisition. Robin also included concrete proposals to deliver the companies and business database of the RCB through LawNet as well as a looser proposal to include the data in IPOS. Charles Lim, now Parliamentary Counsel, and I were in charge of the AGC computer division and Robin ran his ideas through us before we presented the proposal to the troika in charge of the legal sector at the time: the new CJ Yong Pung How, Minister for Law, Prof S Jayakumar, and AG Tan Boon Teik. We got their blessing, and the infant LawNet was born.

 

[Jim Lim incident]

 

5. As for Robin, you cannot stop a good man. He very quickly moved on to greater things, first to EDB, then to Suzhou and NCS and now SPH. I, on the other hand was stuck with LawNet for the next twenty years! I suppose it is always more fun to conceive the baby than to raise it! But seriously, although there were moments when we were not sure where we were heading, it has been what the younger generation would call, a fun ride.

 

6. With the Statutes database up and running, the next big project was Intereq. That project was headed by the then Registrar of Land Titles, Ms Foo Tuat Yien and she had a tough job getting so many different organisations with not only different computer systems but in different stages of computerisation to get their act together. I was drawn in at several instances to exercise whatever persuasive powers I could muster, failing which, to flex whatever muscle AGC had, to resolve conflicts and remove obstacles. It took more than five years of patient toil, but finally, in 1996, Intereq was commissioned.

 

7. LawNet was under the charge of the AGC with a 5-year government funding. When that ran out in 1995, we identified the SAL as the organisation most suited to take over LawNet from the AGC as LawNet had by then grown to more than just offering the Statutes database, but had the RCB’s BizNet and was about to launch Intereq. The SAL Senate approved the transfer and LawNet fell within the jurisdiction of the SAL with the formation of a new SAL Committee, the LawNet Management Committee.

 

8. But there is no rest for the wicked and the then AG, now CJ Chan Sek Keong, was appointed chairman of the LMC and that meant that I was in the committee and continued to be in charge of running LawNet. The logical follow up to the Statutes database was the Subsidiary Legislation database. Except that this was several times larger and with amendments made virtually every week. We had the benefit of our experience with the Statutes database, but had to cope with images, something that was not found in the Statutes but featured aplenty in SL. With the text format of the AGC computer system, we could not provide images in the SL and had to be contented with a workaround – a note stating that there was an image at that part of the rules. It was not until LawNet migrated to Internet that we were able to display images. At the same time the LawNet team assiduously went about pursuing the next logical database, court judgments, particularly the High Court and Court of Appeal. We approached NUS for their CEASER database and put it up in LawNet. We subsequently managed to enter into an arrangement with Butterworth, then publisher of the MLJ, to put that law report on LawNet in 1998. With the increasing availability of internet – some of you may remember Pacific Internet, the first ISP in Singapore which was quickly gaining popularity – the migration of LawNet from dial up subscription to internet access became inevitable. In 1998 we migrated the Statutes, SL and MLJ databases to internet.

 

9. That migration contains a little story. Up to that time, the charging model for the use of LawNet databases was by access time (at 50 cents per minute) and a file transfer charge of 10 cents per block of 512 characters. This was similar to how other online providers charged. But it was not an experience that I and my colleagues, as users liked. When we used such databases, the meter was ticking and we were under pressure not only to finish the legal research work before the charges racked up a high charge, but we also had to ensure our searches were properly planned as there was a charge for each search. We all harked to the good old days when we could leisurely peruse the books in the library, undisturbed by meter. That was when we questioned the standard charging paradigm of time and data. Why not offer the freedom of usage for a flat fee? Internet technology allowed such access without tying up server time. In this way, a subscriber would have the entire database on tap from his computer any time he wanted, for any amount of time he wanted and could do as many searches he wished, making as many errors he liked, for a single fee. Since the target customers, lawyers, were members of an honourable profession, there was a low leakage risk. This was such a wonderful idea that very soon the debate was only on the technical details of software and commercial details of how much to charge. After close consultation with the Law Society, which was represented by Jim Lim, we decided that each firm should pay on a per lawyer basis, with the unit rate per lawyer declining with the size of the firm. This charging paradigm remains to this day and from feedback, has been one of the reasons for the success of LawNet as it has madeit affordable, particularly to the small law firms. More importantly, it makes legal research a pleasurable rather than a pressure-cooker experience. And it has been a successful model in keeping LawNet self-sustaining, with the ability for continual product improvement at a reasonable price. We have managed to keep subscription rates affordable, and have only increased it once in the last decade.

 

10. Over the years, the range of content available on LawNet has expanded to secondary reference material including legal journals, textbooks and commentaries from law firms and legal institutions. 2007 saw a landmark achievement by the indefatigueable LawNet team – we secured access to the official English Law Reports and Weekly Law Reports. Since then we have included law reports and legal materials from Australia, India, New Zealand, and Hong Kong. Today, the features offered in LawNet are comparable to those offered by international legal research service providers, making Singapore the only country in the region with its own comprehensive worldclass legal research service.

 

Conclusion
11. It has been a long and exciting journey to arrive at where we are today, and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all here (and not here) who have contributed to the LawNet story. There are too many to name without turning this into an Oscar ceremony, but I must mention the following: the most important must be the blessing and support of the troika in office at the time, CJ Yong Pung How, Minister for Law, Prof S Jayakumar, AG Tan Boon Teik. Next is CJ Chan Sek Keong who, as AG from 1992, gave me full support and free rein to steer LawNet. Subsequently as chairman of the LMC of the SAL, he continued to give me complete support and confidence, without which I would not have been able to venture as I did. Then there is my comrade in arms, Charles Lim, which whom I was jointly in charge of the AGC computer division in the early days. Charles has been a constant source of wisdom and information and his phlegmatic temperament the perfect foil to my adventurism. Next are the lieutenants who provided yeoman’s service: from NCB, Tay Bee Lian, and from AGC, Tan Ken Hwee, Kannan, Chong Kah Wei, Yeong Zee Kin. From SAL, CE Serene Wee, Andrew Cheong, Sriram Charkravarthi, Deanna Kwok, Lim Seng Siew, Clifford Wong. And I would like to thank our partners from Crimson Logic, who have been through thick and thin with us these past 20 years. Last but not least, I would like to mention as a group the present and past members of the LawNet Management Committee. Their sterling contributions in charting and steering LawNet and in providing feedback and suggestions have led to a more relevant service for the legal sector: I would in particular mention the longstanding contributions of Jim Lim. But as I have said, there are numerous others, and without their support and dedication, LawNet would not have become what it is today. As Chairman of the LMC, and as one who had personally participated in LawNet from the outset, I would like to thank each and every one who has contributed to the success of LawNet as provider of IT legal support to the legal sector in Singapore.

 

12. Ladies and gentlemen, I have come to the end of my reminiscing and thank you for your indulgence and patience. It is now my pleasure to invite our Guest of Honour, the Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong to deliver his keynote address.