Speech by The Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong at the launch of Sentencing Principles in Singapore and Practitioners’ Library: Family and Juvenile Court Practice
The Honourable the Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong

Authors, ladies and gentlemen:

1. I am delighted to be here this evening to join the authors of the two books to be launched in a short while. Deputy Senior State Counsel, Kow Keng Siong, the author of the first book, and District Judge, Khoo Oon Soo, one of the authors of the second book, have just told you why they have been published. As authors, they cannot, by convention, claim that the books are a “must read” or a “must refer to” for serious practitioners in these areas of practice who wish to be taken seriously by the courts. However, I can say those things on their behalf, and that is why I am here now.

2. Today’s launch is also unusual in that it is a joint launch by two publishers of legal books - LexisNexis, a commercial giant in this field, and Academy Publishing, a field mouse in the same terrain.  That they have agreed to collaborate to launch these two books jointly shows that when we have to share a small market for our products, we need to trim our costs to launch them, even though the two products do not compete with each other for the same users for sales. In this connection, I would like, on behalf of SAL, to thank LexisNexis for agreeing to be the major contributor to the cost of this launch.

3. Both books are meant for the busy practitioner who wants something handy and reliable to refer to quickly. Intellectually, the law academics will tell you that this kind of books is not difficult to write. Nevertheless, they still require a lot of intellectual effort and discipline. The author has to read all the existing case law, distil from them the material facts, the judicial reasoning and the decisional outcomes of the cases, collating and summarising the principles and arranging them systematically. They are then presented to the practitioners and judges in a convenient form to save them the inconvenience and drudgery of having to do their own research on what is current in the law. But what is admirable about both the titles to be launched today is that they are written by incumbent and former District Court Judges whose duty is to judge and not to write books. They have written them not to advance their own careers, but for the benefit of practitioners and and offenders. Law academics may find Keng Siong’s book particularly useful as reference material for their cogitations and theorising about the ideological and philosophical values of criminal law and punishment that may be extracted from the principles they apply and the punishments they impose in typical and non-typical cases. That the authors found the time and made the effort to write them, whilst having to perform their daily judicial duties, is a testament to their abiding interest in their work and also the public service ethos of our judicial officers in the Subordinate Courts. I commend them for their dedication in their role as public officers.

4. Let me now say a few words about the two titles to be launched today. The present title Family and Juvenile Court Practice was first published in 2000 without a section on the Juvenile Court.  It was one of the products of a laudable project of the Subordinate Courts to publish a series of practitioners’ texts to assist lawyers in their practice. Altogether, the Subordinate Courts have produced five other reference books and monographs for practitioners, viz.,

 (1) Evidence in Criminal Trials;
 (2) Sentencing Practice in the Subordinate Courts (2nd Ed);
 (3) Assessment of Damages: Personal Injuries and Fatal Accidents (2nd Ed);
 (4)  Law on Corruption in Singapore: Cases and Materials;   and
 (5) Coroner’s Practice in Medical Cases.

However one looks at it, I think this is quite an achievement for the Subordinate Courts, given the enormous case-load they have to clear every year.

5. With regard to “Sentencing Principles in Singapore”, I can say that I would have been extremely pleased and proud to have written it myself if I were a District Judge. Kow Keng Siong has said that he has put in 10 years of work to produce this monumental work, but he remains modest about it.  The book contains about 115 pages of pre-text materials (made up of three tables – of contents, cases and legislation), 1,340 pages of text and 40 pages of index. The book is a worthy companion to the current edition of “Sentencing Practice in the Subordinate Courts”, and is more up to date by about five years.

6. Justice Choo Han Teck has written a short but incisive review of Keng Siong’s book. The review is published in the January-June 2009 issue of Inter Se on the subject: crime and sentencing at pages 60-62:

“This is an encyclopaedic reference book which is a repository of an impressive collection of case law on sentencing, all in 37 chapters. Although one might think that all this would be too much in any one book, the handiness of the volume alone makes this book an invaluable reference book. The form adopted by the author seemed to be the most practical one in view of the wide coverage of topics.”

7. Justice Choo also commented on the absence of any commentary by the author on the principles he has distilled in the book, which he thought might subtract from its usefulness to the user. He felt that such commentaries from the author to enlarge or add on to some of the judicial statements would have benefited from explanation (at page 61). He pointed out that some of the judicial statements stated in the book seemed too broad, and these, too, would have benefited from the author’s personal commentary. One of the statements (from a High Court judgment) Justice Choo referred to was this: “Ignorance of the law can hardly be a mitigating factor”, and he asked, why not in some cases? Well, Justice Choo (as a reviewer and also a High Court Judge) may say so, but Keng Siong, writing as a District Judge, may not say so (or choose to say so, even if he disagreed with the statement).  Now that Keng Siong is a Deputy Senior State Counsel, he is not under the same constraint.  Perhaps that is why he has just assured us that the profession may not need to wait another 10 years for the second edition to be published.   

8. However, in relation to the statement about ignorance of the law, I would like to say that for criminal lawyers and DPPs who appear before the High Court, ignorance of this book will not be treated as a mitigating factor, if counsel or DPPs are found wanting in MAs. Both counsel and DPPs will now have no excuse for not addressing the court on sentence. I would therefore expect the Subordinate Courts and the Attorney-General’s Chambers to buy at least 100 copies of this book so that every District Judge and Magistrate and every DPP will have a copy of the book. Likewise, I would expect every criminal lawyer who is serious about his practice to buy a copy of the book.

9. “Sentencing Principles in Singapore” is surely a monumental work that will run and run. It should stand the test of time, and bring some relief to the stress of being a criminal lawyer or a DPP, and also of being a judge trying, in every case before him, to find the correct sentence for an offender that does justice to the public interest and to the offender. 

10. I now have great pleasure in launching Sentencing Principles in Singapore and Family and Juvenile Court Practice.