THE LONG ROAD TO LAWNET, AS TOLD BY CHARLES LIM
It’s difficult to imagine a law firm operating without a computer today. But up until the 1980s, this ubiquitous technology was not something in every law office let alone on every practitioner’s desk. Mr Charles Lim of the Attorney-General’s Chambers shares how officers like himself helped build the landscape we know today.
The conclusion of last month’s TechLaw.Fest might lead you to believe that Singapore’s legal sector—with its bevvy of programmes encouraging tech adoption—was always at the forefront of technology. But Mr Charles Lim, Principal Senior State Counsel at the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), knows better. He recalls a time when the digital world was foreign to Singapore’s legal sector, even though other major economies had already started adopting then-nascent technologies.
This came to the fore early in Mr Lim’s career, when he was tasked to be a co-director of the AGC’s computer department in the late 1980s, together with a fellow young Legal Service Officer: Mr Lee Seiu Kin, now a High Court judge. “The then-Attorney-General, Mr Tan Boon Teik, arranged for both of us to go on a study trip to the United States to study how it was computerising its legal system,” recalls Mr Lim.
That proved to be a significant trip and one that would help spearhead the digitisation of Singapore’s legal industry. And although it was some three decades ago, Mr Lim recalls it vividly. Together with Justice Lee and 2 IT professionals, he traversed the country, visiting district attorneys, courts and large law firms in various states. He tells SAL, “We were very impressed by what we saw, the degree of computerisation in the late 1980s. It was staggering by Singapore's standards.”
For example, when Justice Lee and Mr Lim recounted an OCR technology they witnessed at the Legal Tech Conference in Chicago to certain IT professionals in Singapore, they were met with disbelief. “They told us that this technology didn’t exist,” Mr Lim says with a laugh.
“One of the large international law firms brought us to their data centres and showed us their litigation support system which tracked the different stages of a case on a computer: e.g. when the defence and submissions of each case were due,” shares Mr Lim. The digital wave had reached the American judiciary as well, with Sonoma county in California showcasing a system that tracked an accused’s journey from arrest to sentencing. The US court administrators had already employed computerised case management systems at that time. “We found it very advanced and we were very impressed that the systems were all integrated.”
LESSONS FOR SINGAPORE
Justice Lee and Mr Lim saw possibilities of how Singapore could adopt and adapt what they saw in the States. They set about putting into motion their idea of a nationwide system integrating legal processes, information and knowledge and sharing it with both the public and private sectors —the earliest iteration of LawNet.
By this time, they were both aware of how to get things done in the public sector. “We thought, the only way to get everyone to conform was to go top-down. If we tried to persuade them peer-to-peer, they would all want to promote their own system so they could gain credit and recognitions for their own department. It was quite natural,” says Mr Lim. “So we talked to National Computer Board and went to the top, to talk to then-Chief Justice Wee Chong Jin and Minister for Law, S Jayakumar.” (Read about Prof Jayakumar’s pitch to Parliament about LawNet here). Mr Tan was supportive from the very beginning and we would not have been able to achieve this without his personal support.
Both the Chief Justice and Minister for Law were supportive and a working group was formed and by 1990, LawNet was launched. “We had a ceremony attended by the Attorneys-General of all the ASEAN states. Mr Lim Swee Say (then the Chief Executive of the National Computer Board) gave a keynote address. It was quite something,” he recounts with a tinge of pride. Mr Tan and Mr C R Rajah, then President of the Law Society, also spoke at the ceremony.
“COVID-19 has of course accelerated digitisation, but the fact that there was already a high level of digitisation made it easy for the law firms to adapt.”
Never be stagnant” may be a fitting description of Singapore’s legal system, which remains keenly attuned to society’s shifting needs surrounding justice. Since its inception 30 years ago, LawNet has been a committed partner to this process. By evolving and refining its services, it has been key to the digitisation of Singapore’s legal system, while also cementing the Republic as a global legal research hub. In this series, the Singapore Academy of Law, which runs and manages LawNet, will tell the stories of the people behind, in the centre of and for whom LawNet was envisioned. We’ll also share our plans for the portal as our legal system approaches another chapter in its liveried history.
Join us as we tell these tales of yesterday and visions for tomorrow; and tell us yours as well by using #LawNet30 on social media.