Opening of Legal Year 2004
The Honourable The Chief Justice Yong Pung How

Mr Attorney-General and Mr Jeyaretnam   

On behalf of the Judiciary, thank you both for your well wishes and for the support which the Attorney-General’s Chambers and the Law Society have given us over the years. We are grateful to have your support in the year ahead as we work together to enhance the administration of justice in Singapore.

Enshrining the right to access to justice

2     Since the last time we met together in this chamber, we have lived through a war and an outbreak of a deadly virus. The resilience of our people has triumphed over the challenge of these adversities. I am encouraged that, through it all, the administration of justice has remained stalwart in maintaining a peaceful and flourishing civic society. It is the Chief Justice’s duty to ensure that the commitment of the Judiciary to uphold the rule of law is unshaken and fulfilled. The state of affairs of the Judiciary in the past year is comprehensively set out in the Annual Reports of the Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts, copies of which are placed before you today. This morning, I shall highlight the significant developments in the courts in 2003 – a year which saw the Judiciary put in place key measures and benchmarks to ensure that every person’s right to access to justice is enshrined.

Controlling the cost of litigation

3     The Judiciary closely monitors the trends and forces of the socioeconomic environment which affect the legal sector in Singapore. In these harsh economic times, the need to control the cost of litigation is imperative. With this in mind, the courts have cut their filing and hearing fees to soften the impact of the current economic downturn in so far as it affects court users.

4     A key initiative to regulate the conduct of proceedings in court was the introduction of hearing fees in July 1993. The objective of hearing fees is to ensure a greater efficiency in the use of court time. With effect from 1 June 2003, fees for the first three days of hearing before a Judge in the High Court have been waived. Based on the recent profile of cases which go for trial, the waiver of fees will directly benefit up to 35% of such cases in the High Court. In addition, the large majority of cases fixed for hearing in chambers on special hearing dates are now not subject to any hearing fees. As the principle of not prolonging proceedings has now been well-established, the waiver of fees does not detract from the raison d’etre of imposing hearing fees as a regulatory measure. By a similar account, stamp fees for matrimonial proceedings have been reduced by 30%.

5     In my previous responses at the Opening of the Legal Year, I have spoken of the technical achievement and progress of the Electronic Filing System (EFS). At the same time, however, I have been mindful of the profession-wide impact which the EFS has. More than three years have passed since the implementation of the EFS in March 2000. In April last year, I appointed an EFS Review Committee, with representatives from both the Bar and the Judiciary, to undertake an in-depth review of the operations of the EFS. It was timely to review the system in the context of the experience gained and the advancements in technology. The Review Committee found that the EFS provided the Judiciary with a fully electronic registry and was instrumental in encouraging the legal profession in Singapore to take a giant leap in the adoption of IT. However, the EFS added a significant layer of costs for litigants. At the same time, there were technical issues which needed to be addressed. I accepted the recommendations of the Review Committee to introduce changes and refinements to the EFS, and directed that a Review Implementation Committee, chaired by the Second Solicitor-General, oversee the implementation of the recommendations.

6     In the immediate future, the EFS will be enhanced both operationally and technically. Crucially, EFS fees have been cut since 15 October 2003. There is now a 20% reduction on all EFS fees save for fees on electronic service of documents. The 15% surcharge imposed on service bureau filings has also been removed. Trial bundles, which are usually voluminous, no longer have to be filed via the EFS. The reduction in EFS fees will lead to significant savings in the cost of litigation.

7     In the longer term, the knowledge and experience gained from the development and operation of the EFS will be leveraged upon to develop an improved version of the EFS that will take advantage of the new technologies available.

8     The success of the EFS will depend on the strong support and commitment of the legal profession, the Judiciary and the technology solution providers. The Judiciary is confident that the changes effected as a result of this review will ensure the continued relevance of the EFS, and enhance the quality of the system, as the needs of the Singapore legal sector evolve.

Safeguarding our homeland security

9     As the world bonds together to confront international terrorism, back in our country, our government has taken unprecedented measures to protect our people and defend our homeland. The Judiciary is constantly assessing and evaluating our security guidelines, together with our Home Team departments. With the construction of the New Supreme Court Building in full swing, we look forward to moving into a courthouse with the strictest security set-up and standards so that the safety and security of the Judges, court users and members of the public will not be compromised.

Preserving the rule of law

10     As I have previously observed, for the man on the street, for the majority of our citizens, the rule of law holds its strongest influence in the Subordinate Courts. 95% of our cases are heard in these Courts. It is imperative that access to justice here is protected. Last year, the Subordinate Courts handled a prodigious caseload. As was the case in the Supreme Court, these cases were disposed of within strict timelines. There was no backlog to speak of.

11     The lower courts, too, have implemented fundamental judicial and administrative reforms to enhance access to justice. The Subordinate Courts’ Equal Treatment Benchbook is a testimony to their commitment to uphold the constitutional right of every person to equality before the law and equal protection of the law, regardless of race, language or religion.

12     Whether they are adjudicating on criminal, civil, family or juvenile cases, the Subordinate Courts are guided by a set of enduring principles laid down in their Justice Statement. In the administration of criminal justice, they have established, together with the Prisons Department, a re-offending risk profile framework of recidivists. This has been an additional sentencing tool to aid sentencing judges in the imposition of appropriate custodial terms of corrective or preventive detention. For civil cases, the Subordinate Courts’ debt recovery and restructuring programme for small claims offers assistance to litigants. Consumer Education Singapore – an initiative proposed by the Subordinate Courts and spearheaded by the South West Community Development Council – offers non-profit debt education as a prelude to nonprofit debt counselling. On another front, the Women’s Charter (Matrimonial Proceedings) Rules have been overhauled to simplify petitions and applications for relief.

Reviewing and improving our systems

13     I have just spoken about the Judiciary’s initiatives and efforts last year to enhance our judicial system – a system which seeks to secure every citizen’s inalienable right to access to justice. Rarely have we lived through so much change in so many ways in so short a time. Quietly, but with gathering force, the ground has shifted beneath our feet as we move into an age of quick and sudden change, a fiercely competitive global economy, a truly new world. Against this backdrop, this is not a time to rest.

14     We take pride in having one of the most efficient and effective judiciaries in the world. However, we will be none the wiser if we were to assume that this will always be so. History has reminded us time and time again that complacency and inertia will ultimately lead to the collapse of a system. The Roman and Byzantine empires – the great civilisations in the history of mankind – declined and fell because of economic, military and political decay brought about by weak leadership, poor governance and complacency. The message is clear. We must keep improving our systems, while keeping track of developments in other jurisdictions. We have to be mindful of how the legal and judicial system in Singapore stacks up against comparable jurisdictions around the world. Where once we were foremost in the efficient administration and delivery of justice, the world around us has not stood still. Others have caught up with us in some areas. The English courts are now able to dispose of cases as quickly as us. According to a report in The Straits Times, the High Court in Malaysia has introduced a case management and a computerised evidence-recording system to help deal with cases more quickly. It took over a decade of judicial reforms for Singapore to have a firstrate administration of justice. If we do not strive to move forward, we will quickly fall behind. Our fortunes can easily turn against us if we do not keep pushing to raise the threshold of excellence.

15     Therefore, we need to constantly review and update our systems and processes, and build on what we have achieved thus far. We will do well to look at and learn from advancements in other legal systems so that we can benchmark our practices against the progressive jurisdictions in the world. As China opens her doors to the world, her legal system is beginning to take into account the new international order. Her entry into the World Trade Organisation has had a great impact on her legal and judicial system. I saw for myself the staggering progress which China has made in all aspects of her legal and judicial structure when I led a delegation of Supreme Court Judges to China in 2002. My impression of the stirring developments in China was reinforced in my discussions with the President of the Supreme People’s Court, His Excellency Mr Xiao Yang, during his visit to Singapore in September last year. Towards this end, we will be sending our own legal officers to the People’s Republic of China to learn more about their legal and judicial systems.

Enhancing our human capital

16     Case law represents our intellectual capital. Our human capital lies in our judges and lawyers. In this regard, I am dismayed at recent reports of errant lawyers making off with clients’ money. The solicitor-client relationship is premised on trust. This trust will be irreparably broken if we allow flagrant breaches of a solicitor’s duty to continue.

17     Unfortunately, in the last year alone, four lawyers were convicted for criminal breach of trust of clients’ monies, totalling more than $1,100,000; one other lawyer has been charged for criminal breach of trust involving more than $1,500,000 and yet another two lawyers disappeared from Singapore with a total of $700,000 of clients’ monies. With only one exception, all these cases involved lawyers who were sole proprietors of their practices. To try and reduce and contain these disgraceful incidents, which have already created a public impression that lawyers are generally a dishonest profession, the Law Society developed a set of proposals recently to reduce and control these incidents, and which appeared to be to be practical and sensible. I was astonished to learn that a vocal minority of lawyers organised an opposition to the introduction of these proposals, and even threatened to remove the Council of the Law Society for daring to act in this responsible manner. But this disgraceful state of affairs cannot go on. No one can say that all lawyers who practice as sole proprietors cannot be trusted to hold clients’ monies; but if repeated incidents occur in which criminal breach of trust is committed by lawyers who are sole proprietors, it simply means that there is no alternative for us but to focus our attention on this group as a whole. I hope that the Council and members of the Law Society can break their impasse and come to an agreement in respect of the proposed changes to the Solicitors’ Accounts Rules. These changes are a step forward towards tightening accounting practices in the profession. I have consulted the Minister for Law and the Attorney-General, who are in support of the proposed changes. I wish not for the heavy hand of government to have to step in to remedy a malpractice which can clearly be rectified by a united profession.

18     But time is of the utmost importance and, unless this problem can be resolved by the Law Society within the next few weeks, the heavy hand of regulatory authority will have to be brought to bear down on it. I earnestly hope that this will not be necessary.

19     Against this, however, we should not forget that Singapore has seen many outstanding lawyers in the private and public sectors, who, together with all at the Bar, are integral to the upholding of the standards of integrity, honesty and professionalism in the legal fraternity.

20     In concluding, it is my pleasure to announce the appointment of the new Senior Counsel. Of the 12 lawyers who applied for appointment and were considered by all the judges of the Supreme Court, the Selection Committee finally decided to appoint only Mr Tan Cheng Han. This year, however, the Selection Committee broke new ground by also appointing for the first time as a Senior Counsel a distinguished academic who had not applied for appointment. In conferring this appointment on Professor Andrew Phang Boon Leong, Professor of Law and Chairman of the Department of Law at the Singapore Management University, the Selection Committee gave recognition to his outstanding contributions to legal knowledge and scholarship in a wide area of law.

21     On this note, I declare open the new Legal Year. My colleagues and I wish all of you the best in the year ahead. wish all of you the best in the year ahead.