Parliament: S'pore legal system works well, strikes balance between specialisation, integration, says Shanmugam

SINGAPORE – Singapore’s legal system is working well, and strikes a balance between specialisation and integration in the legal service, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.

There are also safeguards for judicial independence, and judges with prosecutorial experience will bring further expertise to their work, he added.

Mr Shanmugam was responding in Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 4) to Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who had asked how many judges in the State Courts previously worked as prosecutors with the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and whether the Law Ministry would review its policy on the separation of duties in the legal service.

At present, the total number of officers in the legal service and judiciary, excluding High Court judges, is 801 – a relatively small number, Mr Shanmugam said.

In this context, there may be questions about why officers are posted between the State Courts and other parts of the legal service, he added.

He said: “Can there be independence, if they are liable to be cross-posted?”

Mr Shanmugam said the Legal Service Commission believes that rotation provides access to a larger pool of talent, helps its officers become more well-rounded, and gives the system flexibility to accommodate officers who want to try different types of work.

All movements in the legal service are overseen by personnel boards or committees, which are chaired by the Chief Justice and the Legal Service Commission, of which the Chief Justice is president.

Mr Shanmugam quoted former Speaker of Parliament and High Court Judge A. P. Rajah, who in 1963 said: “Merely to say that because one has been a deputy public prosecutor and that therefore, when he gets on to the Bench he is going to side with the prosecution, is not correct and is not fair to the profession.”

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At the time Justice Rajah made the remarks, the number of officers in the legal service was much smaller, he added.

In 2014, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said there would be greater specialisation in the legal service, with middle-ranked officers able to opt for either the legal or judicial career track.” However, even as we promote more specialisation, it is critical that the legal service operates as an integrated whole,” Mr Shanmugam said.

This is why more senior officers are managed by the Legal Service Commission, he added. “Because at that level of seniority, there will only be very few officers, and it’s necessary to continue with the integrated model to provide better career options and flexibility in deployment to meet the needs of the service,” he said.

Mr Shanmugam also responded to Non-Constituency MP Leong Mun Wai’s question on whether the trial process can be expedited for economically vulnerable foreign nationals.

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If cases are expedited for foreigners, then Singaporeans accused of crimes will have to wait much longer, he said.

Now, there are 55 judges at the State Courts handling about 600 criminal trials each year – which is a heavy load. About 22 per cent of these cases involved foreigners, Mr Shanmugam said.

He added that the median time taken for criminal trials in the State Courts – from the time a person is charged in court to the judgment being delivered – is 15 months.

This depends on various factors such as the nature of the case, the availability of lawyers, as well as documents and witnesses.

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For instance, Mr Shanmugam said, a 51-year-old Singaporean man was charged in March for two counts of shop theft. The man claimed trial, and was remanded. In June, the Attorney-General’s Chambers assessed that the man’s remand period might outstrip his sentence. The trial was then brought forward and the man was convicted and sentenced to 16 weeks’ jail.

Said Mr Shanmugam: “There will be many other cases like this, but even if there is no specific remand situation, if you bring forward some people in the queue, the others in the queue will have to wait longer.

“And I don’t think it is fair to Singaporeans to do what Mr Leong has suggested.”

Mr Leong also asked about the interpretation services available in the Singapore Police Force. Mr Shanmugam replied that there is a pool of interpreters available for the three official working languages as well as the more common local dialects.

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For foreign languages, interpreters are engaged on an ad hoc basis.

Interpreters are used when interviewees are unable to understand interviewers, or vice versa, he said. There is a framework to assess the suitability of interpreters, which includes their qualifications and relevant work experience.

In this specific case, Ms Parti was asked if she could speak Malay, and she said yes, Mr Shanmugam said. “The point is, does the interviewee understand the language being used? And, as I said earlier, the police have been told they must really check this,” he added.

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