The island of Singapore’s potential of becoming a free port was recognized by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 when he took the first step to acquire this peaceful island from the Johore Sultanate. This marked the beginning of a new era for Singapore. The once quiet island turned into a bustling trading port where ships from various parts of the world called to trade their wares.
Though the British had strategic interest in mind when they acquired Singapore, soon trade became the most important preoccupation of the island. With the British administration in place, there was a need to introduce English Legal System to the island. This was done in 1826 i.e. within 7 years of being acquired by the British. By way of 1826 Charter of Justice, English Law was introduced to Singapore. Thereafter, many legal statutes was passed in England which applied to Singapore. Essentially the law introduced to Singapore mirrored the law in England except on the issues of language and religion relating to Muslims, which concessions was obtained by the Johore Sultanate when they ceded the island to the British Empire.
Singapore became a colony, then a state and finally an independent nation. Throughout this period it firmly followed English Law and Administration of Justice. Even today, the Singapore Legal System closely follows that of England Present System Singapore follows a Westminster style government. This essentially means that the executive arm of the government, the legislature and the judiciary all function separately and counter balance each other. For the purposes of our present discussion, we would only concentrate on the judiciary.
The Singapore judicial system comprises of the Supreme Court which comprises of the Court of Appeal which is the highest apex of the judicial courts and the High Courts. The Subordinate Courts comprise of the District Courts, Magistrate Courts, Coronary Courts and Small Tribunal Courts. The Judicial system is headed by the Chief Justice who recommends the appointment the Judges of the High Court. Some of these Judges are also called Judicial Commissioners.
The Legal Service Commission which has in its ranks the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General appoints the various District Court Judges and the Magistrates. The District Court Judges and the Magistrate are not High Court Judges and they can be transferred to the Attorney-General�s Chambers as Deputy Public Prosecutors or to other Ministries as legal officers.
The Courts in Singapore have both civil and criminal jurisdiction. This simply means that they can hear both civil and criminal cases. In respect of criminal cases, they can only hear cases where the crimes have been committed in Singapore. Except under very special circumstances the criminal jurisdiction does not extend outside of Singapore.
For example, if an offence had been committed in the State of Johore, the Singapore courts cannot hear the case. The Attorney-General is also the Public Prosecutor. As an Attorney-General he advises the Government of the day on legal matters. As a Public Prosecutor, he has the right of conduct of all criminal matters. There are various state counsel and the deputy public prosecutor under him. The Attorney-General�s Chambers and the Judiciary are independent of each other.
The Singapore Legal Bar comprises of advocates and solicitors admitted to the Singapore Bar. They have monopoly over attendance in courts. Except in cases, where the party wishes to represent himself, he must engage the services of an advocate and solicitor to argue or present a case in court.
In the case of company matters, Rules of Court requires that it must be represented by an advocate and solicitor. Civil Case A civil case may be commenced in a Magistrate Court, District Court or in the High Court. The subject matter of the case and the quantum involved decides which court the case ought to be commenced.
If the amount claimed is less than or equal to $60,000 the matter ought to be commenced in the Magistrate Courts. If the amount claimed is less than $250,000 but more than $60,000, the case ought to commenced in the District Court. If the quantum involved exceeds $250,000, the case ought to be commenced in the High Court.
A party dissatisfied with the decision of the lower court may appeal to the higher courts. The right of appeal now ends with the Court of Appeal. The previous right of appeal to the Privy Council in England has now been abrogated. Progress of a Case Singapore Judiciary is known for its efficiency. Under the command of the Chief Justice Yong Pung How, it has been streamlined. It would be surprising if a civil case is not heard within 9 months to one year from the time the case is filed in court. The speed owes much credit to the staff of the Supreme Court and the industry of the Registrar of the High Court. Claims are filed by EFS i.e. electronic filing system. This has led to much savings as far as time in concerned. Stamp fees are paid through inter-bank giro. Notices are also given by electronic mail. This has led to much paper savings. Cases are also conducted with the help of a well developed software system. All the affidavits and documents are scanned and can be called during trial as when necessary. The courts further allow video conferencing which does not foreign witnesses to come to Singapore. Examination in Chief and Cross Examination may be conducted through video conferencing. The Singapore Law follows primarily the British Law. In fact in some areas like the Penal Code and Evidence, the Singapore Law is almost identical to Indian Law. In areas of contract, corporate and shipping areas, the Singapore law is also similar to that of British and the Indian Law. Foreign nationals from India would find the laws in Singapore very familiar to the law in India. Conclusion Despite various inroads as to the efficiency, the Legal System in Singapore is every striving to improve itself in efficiency and quality of justice. From the progress she had made so far, it appears the ultimate goal is not too far.
Palaniappan Sundararaj, Director ,Straits Law Practice LLC