S’pore justice system top in global survey

SINGAPORE: Singapore’s justice system has come out tops in an international survey.

The Rule of Law Index 2010 by the World Justice Project ranked Singapore number one for access to civil justice in the high—income countries group.

Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong said this at the opening of the new Legal Year on Friday.

But both the Legal Service and the Bar acknowledged two areas which need attention.

One aspect which both Chief Justice Chan and the new Attorney—General Sundaresh Menon touched on in their speeches was the small number of Singapore lawyers practising criminal law and the difficulty in attracting young lawyers to practise criminal law.

Mr Menon said this is a worrying trend.

He said: "A vibrant criminal Bar is vital for the maintenance of public confidence in the criminal justice system because of the role of the defence in safeguarding the interests of the accused.

"In my dialogues with the criminal Bar, I was assured of their commitment to raise their profile, their standards and in turn their professional standing so that more young lawyers may be prompted to consider seriously a career in this field. In this way, their constituency, which consists primarily of the average Singaporeans, will be better served."

Wong Meng Meng, president of the Law Society of Singapore, said: "Criminal practice is a very essential part of our society, especially when a less privileged member of the society gets into trouble. He must have access to good legal services and good criminal lawyers. So that is an area we have to look into."

The Attorney—General’s Chambers is also putting greater focus on financial crimes.

Mr Menon revealed that a new division, called the Economic Crimes and Governance Division, will be formed and its officers will focus on prosecution of the most sophisticated financial crimes and regulatory offences as well as quasi—criminal matters.

It is believed that the latest prosecution of the culprits involved in the Singapore Land Authority, Intellectual Property Office of Singapore and of late the Supreme Court cheating cases, will be handled by this new division.

The Chief Justice also touched on suggestions to publish guidelines on fees charged by lawyers.

He said: "Clients should be able to make informed choices and that means they should be given the necessary information. The Law Society already has an online directory for the law firms and the types of legal services they provide. Perhaps they should encourage the law firms to publish the range of fees they expect to charge for the more standard forms of the legal work."

Another area which needs attention is litigation and the availability of top lawyers to appear in Singapore’s courts.

Chief Justice Chan noted that many Senior Counsel in Singapore are not in active practice or appear frequently before the Judges.

He said: "To maintain our eminence as an international business and financial centre, we should make available to litigants in important commercial and financial disputes a greater diversity of legal representation in our courts. I have discussed this with the Minister for Law. He agrees with me that this is an issue that needs looking into, and he intends to consult the Law Society on it."

Law Minister K Shanmugam said: "The fact that we don’t have a sufficient depth, coupled with a structure, indicates there is an issue. We have an existing mechanism for the admission of Queen’s Counsel, ad hoc, and there are different possibilities. The Chief Justice spoke to me and I agreed that is an issue."

"We are a first—class financial jurisdiction and for that both the international financial institutions as well as the people within Singapore and anyone who wants to use this must have access to the quality legal advice and it is really in that context that Chief Justice made that remark and I accepted that based on my own experience," he added.

After five years (2004—2008) of practically no growth in the number of practising lawyers, the last two years saw an increase in the number being admitted to the Bar. The figure now stands at some 3,800 lawyers.

—CNA/wk/ir