A History Of The Singapore Legal Service


Early developments: The first courts 1819 to 1855

There were no regular courts from 1819 to 1823.[1] To administer justice, Sir Stamford Raffles appointed the Resident, Major William Farquhar as the Chief Magistrate to hear cases according to his good sense and experience. The proceedings had to be conducted by Farquhar or his assistant personally and could not be delegated to any separate authority.

The Raffles’ Regulations of 1823[2] provided for the establishment of a Magistrates’ Court in Singapore and 12 men to be appointed as Magistrates; three for each quarter. Subordinate to them were native headmen who were empowered to settle disputes among their respective communities.

These courts were only legally constituted in 1826 when British sovereignty over Singapore was secured. Between 1823 and 1826, the new Resident, John Crawfurd abolished the Magistracy and replaced it with two courts; the Court of Requests for the settlement of small debts and the Resident’s Court for criminal and civil cases. A new Charter of Justice was granted to the East India Company for the three settlements of Penang, Singapore and Malacca, known collectively as the Straits Settlements, on 27 November 1826. The jurisdiction of the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales Island was extended to Singapore and Malacca with Penang remaining as the headquarters. The Recorder, who was based in Penang, was to travel on circuit to Malacca and Singapore and preside over a court together with the Governor and three Resident Councillors of the Settlements.[3]

The Recorder’s Court had none of the technical intricacies of the Courts in England but was simplified to make the administration of justice cheap, simple and efficient. The Recorder was the only professional judge and there was an impolitic union of the executive, legislative and judicial functions, resulting in endless friction.[4]

In 1830, the Straits Settlements were made subordinate to the Government in Bengal and Governor Robert Fullerton was renamed Commissioner. He ruled that no one was entitled to administer justice until a new charter was granted. The courts were closed and the judicial establishment was dismissed. This collapse in the administration of justice led to upheavals and a dip in confidence.

The Court of Directors of the East India Company subsequently ruled that the Charter is in fact still legally effective and ordered that the styles of Governor and Resident Councillor be restored. The courts reopened two years after Fullerton closed them.

In 1848, a Court for the Relief of Insolvent Debtors was established and W W Willans was the first Official Assignee. This court existed until 1870 when the Supreme Court was vested with jurisdiction over bankruptcy maters.

The administration of justice was hampered by infrequent visits of the Recorder and the bad decisions of lay judges. Problems also arose because of the lack of a Crown Solicitor and an Attorney-General or Crown Prosecutor.[5] Resident Councillors were civil servants of the East India Company and not lawyers by training or vocation. Their executive duties left them with no time for their judicial responsibilities. Above all, there was a lack of judicial independence as a result of the union of executive and judicial functions.

After years of agitation, the Crown eventually granted a Third Charter of Justice in 1855 which provided, Singapore with its own judicial establishment. Sir William Jeffcott was appointed the first Recorder of Singapore with an annual salary $18,000 paid for by the East India Company. With the Third Charter, Singapore was also empowered to appoint a Registrar to make out and issue all the process of the court, enter up the records and register the proceedings. Pay clerks could be appointed to assist them. Until April 1861, the Registrars were allowed to keep the fees and pay their own clerks. Thereafter, all fees were paid into the Treasury and Registrars were paid salaries which were very low.[6]

John Crawfurd. Copyright: Singapore History Musuem.

Crown colony days: 1867 to 1944

The era of Recorders came to an end when the Straits Settlements was separated from the Indian Government and became a Crown Colony on 1 April 1867. The Recorder of Singapore became Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements.[7]Thomas Braddell who was the Crown Counsel was appointed Attorney-General. He was stationed at Singapore while the Solicitor-General Daniel Logan who was appointed was stationed in Penang.[8] Until 1893, Attorneys-General were allowed to continue in private practice.

Braddell set about the immense task of giving the colony its own body of statue law, leaving behind a very valuable body of laws upon his retirement in 1883. Among his contributions was the remodelling of the court and its procedure. He put an end to the union of the executive, legislative and judicial functions where the Governor and Resident Councillors ceased to be Judges of the Court. The old Court of Judicature was replaced by the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements. A new Bankruptcy Court was created and imprisonment for debt was abolished.[9]

Further reforms were made to criminal law. The Indian Penal Code was brought into operation from 1 July 1967 and finally became law in Singapore in 1871. The Indian Criminal Procedure Code brought criminal procedure into line with it.[10]

Braddell too, was responsible for the Civil Law Ordinance (1878) which introduced English law relating to partnership, corporations, banking¸ principal and agents, carriers by land and sea, insurance and mercantile law, into Singapore.[11]

The Supreme Court was reconstituted with provision for four judges: The Chief Justice and Senior Puisne Judge who resided in Singapore, and the Judge of Penang and Junior Puisne Judge in Penang. The Supreme Court was divided into two divisions: plea and summary. The office of Deputy Registrar was created to handle the summary side of the Court. The Governor could decide on the number of Registrars and Deputy Registrars required for execution of court business. Registrars were required to be legally qualified.[12] All were appointed in accordance with the appointments of officers in the civil service of the Crown in the Colony.

In the period between 1867 and 1896, there was a growth of the distinct Straits Civil Service comprising men trained in local conditions. They were initially nominated by the Secretary of State for the Colonies and later through open competition subject to a competitive examination.[13] The Secretary of State was responsible for recruiting the senior grades in the Administrative, Professional (including legal) and Technical Services who were all members of the prestigious Malayan Civil Service.

Local officers were however, separately recruited by the Governor of the Colony as members of the Straits Settlements Civil Service established in 1933 or the Straits Settlements Legal Service established in 1940. These “local services” were lower in status compared to the senior services. Senior officers including the Supreme Court Judges and the Attorney-General were appointed by the Secretary of State while junior offices were appointed by the Governor.[14]

Sir Thomas Braddell (1823-1891), was called to the Bar by Gray’s Inn on 10 June 1859. In 1862, he came to Singapore where he commenced a local practice with Abraham Logan under the partnership Logan and Braddell. In 1864, he was appointed Crown Counsel, and in 1867, he was appointed Attorney-General, an office he held till the end of 1882. (Courtesy of the Supreme Court)

The war years to merger and separation: 1946 to 1965

The Japanese Occupation in Singapore lasted from 15 February 1942 to 12 September 1945. Colonial laws continued to be applicable so long as the Japanese left them unaltered. All courts ceased to function and a Military Court of Justice of the Nippon Army was established as the Supreme Court of Syonan City to administer Military Ordinances and the Laws of the Nippon Army.[1]

The civilian courts were re-opened by a proclamation on 27 May 1942. The Syonan Supreme Court opened on 29 May 1942. The Japanese Military Administration set up the office of Attorney-General and Public Prosecutor.

When the Japanese Occupation ended in 1945, Singapore and Malaya remained under the British Military Administration until 1 April 1946. The Chief Legal Officer rendered legal advice to the Administration. All laws and customs prior to the Occupation were reinstated.

On 1 April 1946, the Straits Settlements were disbanded and Singapore became a separate Crown Colony. Penang and Malacca joined the Malayan Union. In December 1949, the Singapore Legislative Council enacted an ordinance creating the Public Service Commission (PSC), which came into force on 1 January 1951.[16] The Commission had no executive authority over the Civil Service and played an advisory role to the Secretary of State and the Governor.

With the attainment of limited self-rule under the 1955 Constitution, a new government was installed and action was taken to “Malayanise” the civil service, replacing expatriate officers with locally-domiciled ones. Through the Singapore (Constitution) Order-in-Council 1958, the PSC was given executive authority over civil servants.[17]

In June 1959, a separate Legal Service Commission was created in the self-governing State of Singapore, with control over the appointment, promotion, and transfer of all officers in the public service who are required to possess legal qualifications for their appointment. The Commission comprised the Chief Justice, the Chairman of the PSC, a Judge of the Supreme Court appointed by the Chief Justice, the State Advocate-General and two other members of the PSC. [18] Singapore’s first local State Advocate-General, Ahmad bin Mohd Ibrahim, was appointed on 25 June 1959. He served until 31 January 1967. On 5 January 1963, Wee Chong Jin became the first Asian to be appointed Chief Justice of the State of Singapore.

During the merger years from September 1963, there was a common Federal Judicial and Legal Service, with a separate branch in Singapore. The Legal Service Commission was superseded by the Singapore Branch Commission under the Federal Constitution. The High Court of Malaysia and the Federal Court of Malaysia replaced the Supreme Court of the Colony of Singapore and the Court of Appeal respectively.[19]

Upon Singapore’s separation from Malaysia, the Federal Judicial and Legal Service Commission was superseded by the Legal Service Commission.

 The former Attorney-General’s Chambers on Parliament Place, just opposite the Supreme Court. It is now part of the Parliament House complex. (Ministry of Information and the Arts Collection, Courtesy of National Archives of Singapore)

From independence to the present day: 1966 to  2004

Singapore became an independent state on 9 August 1965 but ties between the judicial system of Singapore and Malaysia were not severed until 1969. The Constitution (Amendment) Act 1969 and the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969 re-established a Singapore Supreme Court which comprised the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal. In July 1993, the Supreme Court of Judicature (Amendment) Act 1993 and the Constitution (Amendment) Act 1993 established a single Court of Appeal exercising civil and criminal appellate jurisdiction.

(Write up adapted from A History of the Singapore Legal Service, Essays in Singapore Legal History)


  1. Elissa Nassim, The Administration of Justice in the Straits Settlements 1819-1855 (academic exercise, Department of History, University of Malaya in Singapore, 1959)
  2. Straits Settlements Records Vol L 17 1823, pp. 302-312, cited in Elissa Nassim, supra note 5.
  3. One Hundred Years of Singapore: Being Some Account of the Straits Settlements form Its Foundations by Sir Stamford Raffles on the 6th February 1819 to the 6th February 1919, Vol 1 London: J Murray, 1921) supra note 6, at pp. 164-165
  4. See One Hundred Years of Singapore, supra note 6, at p. 167
  5. Letter from the Recorder to Governor(1 July 1851) in SSR W 17, cited in Elissa Nassim, supra note 5
  6. James William Norton-Kyshe in Cases Heard and Determined in Her Majesty’s Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements 1808-1884 Vol I, supra note 11, at Vol 1, p.193
  7. James William Norton-Kyshe in Cases Heard and Determined in Her Majesty’s Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements 1808-1884 Vol I, supra note 11, at Vol 1, p.192
  8. See One Hundred Years of Singapore, supra note 6, at p.204
  9. See One Hundred Years of Singapore, supra note 6, at p.205
  10. See One Hundred Years of Singapore, supra note 6, at p.206
  11. See One Hundred Years of Singapore, supra note 6, at p.216
  12. Ordinance No. III of 1878
  13. Edward Lim Huck Tee, The Malayan Civil Service 1896-1941 (academic exercise, Department of History, University of Malaya, 1960)
  14. Kim Seah Teck Kim, “The Origins and Present Constitutional Position of Singapore Legal Service Commission” (1990) 2 Singapore Academy of Law Journal 1, supra note 49
  15. Goh Kok Leong, “A Legal History of the Japanese Occupation in Singapore” [1981] 1 Malayan Law Journal xxi
  16. Kim Seah Teck Kim, “The Origins and Present Constitutional Position of Singapore Legal Service Commission” (1990) 2 Singapore Academy of Law Journal 1, supra note 49
  17. Report of the Singapore Constitutional Conference held in London in March and April, 1957, Legislative Assembly Sessional Paper No. Misc 2 of 1957
  18. Article 93, Singapore(Constitution) Order-in-Council 1958
  19. Federation of Malaya Act 1963 (No. 26 of 1963) and Malaysian Act 1964 ( No. 7 of 1964)/li>