Constitution Of The Republic Of Singapore (Amendment) Bill and the Judicial Service (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill—speech by Dennis Tan Lip Fong

Delivered in Parliament on 3 November 2021

Mr Speaker, let me start by declaring that I am a practising advocate and solicitor in the Supreme Court of Singapore.

The Constitutional amendment bill and the Judicial Service (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill before us today provide for the creation of a separate judicial service. The call for a separate judicial service is not something new at all. There has been calls for a separate judicial service over the past 35 years and indeed from all sides of the House.

The Workers’ Party’s former Secretary-General, and former member for Anson, the late Mr J.B. Jeyaratnam called for a separate Judicial Service Commission back in 1986. Former NMP and President of the Law Society, Mr Chandra Mohan K Nair called for it in 2004.

In our manifesto for the 2011 General Election, the Workers’ Party called for a separate judicial service.

The honourable Mr Murali Pillay proposed a separate judicial service commission in November 2020 and again in the Adjournment motion in July this year together with the honourable Mr Lim Biow Chuan and Mr Christopher de Souza.

In November 2020, following the Ms Parti Liyani saga, my colleagues, the honourable member for Aljunied, Ms Sylvia Lim, and Ms He Ting Ru, the honourable member for Sengkang, filed a Motion named ‘Justice for All’.

In my speech in the ‘Justice for All’ motion, I said that it might still be worthwhile for the proposed review to still consider whether we should have a more specialized or dedicated judicial track at the State Court level encompassing magistrates and district judges, and discontinuing inter services posting or rotation with other branches of the Legal Service, particularly with AGC.

Today I am heartened to see the Government taking the first step to set up a judicial service separate from the current legal service. The Workers’ Party supports this move and indeed the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill for these changes as this will among other things, promulgate even greater judicial independence.

The Bills proposed the setting up of a Judicial Service Commission (JSC) separate from the existing Legal Service Commission (LSC).

Currently the Chief Justice is the President of the Legal Service Commission and the Attorney-General and the PSC Chairman sit on the Commission together with 2 other members each nominated by the AG, the PSC Chairman and the Prime Minister.

Under the new arrangements pursuant to the Bills, the AG will take over as the President of the LSC and the PSC Chairman assume the newly constituted role of the Vice-President.

The CJ shall be the President of the new JSC while the PSC Chairman assume the newly constituted role of the Vice-President, together with 2 other members each nominated by the CJ, the PSC Chairman and the PM.

I assume that the reconstituted roles in the respective commissions intend that the AG and CJ cannot be nominated by anyone to be members of the JSC and the LSC, respectively and if my assumption is wrong here, I am happy for the minister to clarify. But this must surely be the case as this would promote independence between the two commissions and in the case of the AG not taking a role in the JSC, it would demonstrate greater judicial independence.

Mr Speaker, the Singapore High Court has always enjoyed a good reputation in the international community for its jurisprudence and effectiveness. In particular, it has always been well regarded by many commercial lawyers elsewhere. As a shipping lawyer, I can further attest to that also because the cross-border nature of our shipping legal work both contentious and non-contentious requires us to work with lawyers from different maritime jurisdictions and the issue of finding jurisdiction for both the contracts we draft and the cases we do, often has to do with finding strategic, reliable and reputable jurisdictions which we can persuade our clients and other stakeholders to accept.

With the new JSC being split from the current LSC and a more dedicated judicial track which must surely envisage more dedicated recruitment as well as HR policies, even more attention to judicial training at all levels especially lower to mid levels, as well as a more enhanced career progression plans for all judicial officers, it is hoped that the public will be able to see better access to justice, even better quality judgments at all levels including the various tribunals, State Courts, the High Court and the appellate courts above, as well as the delivery of just outcomes for all litigants.

Mr Speaker, I believe that our current LSC is big enough for the split to take place. I believe that a separate JSC should be given optimum autonomy to plan its recruitment and human resource developments, independent of the reconstituted LSC. Having a separate JSC will hopefully allow it to look at recruitment, professional and continuing training, and retention of personnel with a new focus as it strives to work towards building a team of officers who are specialists in being judicial officers, not merely legal service officers.

I hope that with the JSC, our courts can continue to recruit and develop more specialists in different areas of law be it technology, construction, finance, IP, so on and so forth. This should also not just be at the higher levels such as in the High Court but also in the State Courts. This will enable our courts to maintain its high standing among judiciaries all over the world.

Mr Speaker, I have said in my speech during the ‘Justice for all’ Motion that how an average Singaporean thinks of our judges is important. He or she must of course be learned in law and also in the area of specialization that he or she is known for. Beyond pure commercial law, and particularly in areas like criminal and family law, the ability of judges to understand and empathise with the different challenges faced by litigants of different socio-economic backgrounds is critical. I hope and have confidence that with a dedicated JSC, our judiciary and judicial officers can rise to these challenges.

Mr Speaker, next, according to the Straits Times’ article of 4 October 2021 on the present Bills in question, secondments will be available on application, to provide selected officers with experience across both services and permanent transfers will also be available, subject to prevailing personnel rules.

I would like to ask the minister, following the changes under the present Bills, what are the new changes in respect of (1) the career development for the officers under the proposed new LSC and JSC, as well as (2) the changes in respect of inter service posting between the LSC and JSC that officers can expect after the restructuring.

I know the minister gave some explanation earlier but I would like to know, essentially, how different will the career tracks be after the restructuring? And how will the changes enhance the new and separate Judicial Service? Will there be for example a default career progression plan planned under each of the services commission and transfers across to the other will only be catered upon request by officer or by the management of either services?

In my speech at the Justice for All motion, I also said a specialised judicial service may be preferable to the current system to provide more distance between prosecutors and those working as magistrates and judges, for example, avoid having AGC colleagues, some of them being more senior colleagues, arguing cases before them, knowing that they may be posted back to AGC again. I had asked what safeguards will be in place to encourage reasonable distance.

Next, I would also like to ask whether there are plans to differentiate the remuneration frameworks of the Judicial Service and the Legal Service tracks to account for the differences in specialisation after the restructuring.

Finally, I would like to ask the minister for an update on how Minlaw views the current caseloads in our courts given our current number of judicial officers and given the pace by which the cases are being managed and whether it thinks that the current number of judicial officers is adequate across the courts.

Mr Speaker, notwithstanding my clarifications, the Workers’ Party will vote in support the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill and the Judicial Service (Miscellaneous Amendments) Bill.