Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Independent Law Reform Body For Singapore

ARTICLE PUBLISHED IN TODAY (SINGAPORE) ON 5 JULY 2006

OVER the past year, there have been calls for law reform in several areas of law.

There have been suggestions that the Films Act needs to be updated to be in synch with our developing society and its norms. Arguments have also been put forward that various aspects of our criminal law be reviewed so as to give better rights to a defendant, especially one arrested by mistake or through entrapment.

For example, lawyer Thomas Koshy argued in Today recently on the need to provide a wrongfully accused person the right to recover his legal costs from the state.

These aspects of law reform could have a profound impact on the legal rights, liabilities and duties of many, if approved by Parliament.

Yet, these calls have been met with silence from the two bodies that bear the important burden of law reform.

The primary entity for law reform in Singapore is the Law Reform and Revision Division (LRRD) of the Attorney-General's Chambers, whose two-fold mission is "to review and reform the law to meet the needs of Singapore and its people in the 21st century" and to revise legislation "to consolidate, modernise and simplify them".

The secondary entity is the Law Reform Committee (LRC) of the Singapore Academy of Law, which makes recommendations to the Government on the need for legislation in any area of law; reviews any legislation before Parliament; and publishes selected reports available online.

Not many laymen seem to know of these two bodies. They seem to be under the impression that law reform comes under the purview of the ministries or the statutory bodies responsible for the areas of law that they enforce. As such, people write to these government bodies directly or through the Feedback Unit.

Even fewer are aware of the fact that anyone can write to the LRRD's Principal Senior State Counsel to make a suggestion for law reform. The civil servant, like all other public servants, is duty-bound to consider this suggestion and reply.

So why have both bodies not responded to issues discussed in public of late? One could consider various possible reasons.

The most obvious could be a sheer lack of resources.

A search of the Singapore Government Directory reveals that the LRRD is very lean. It is comprised of 10 persons and probably a few more unlisted junior officers. The LRC is made up of some 24 talented individuals, but each juggles multiple responsibilities and, thus, is already stretched.

Hence, these bodies have to be picky about the areas of law proposed for reform, and focus on the ones they see as important to Singapore. Inadvertently, economic priorities take precedence.

A statement on the LRRD's website seems to signal its current focus. It notes that a database is maintained to track legislative and reform efforts in other countries' jurisdictions, "particularly in the areas of financial services and corporate law, technology law and commercial law in general".

It could also be the case that the LRRD — as the in-house legal team of the Government — takes into account various political considerations in deciding what law reform to champion.

For example, changes proposed to the various aspects of our criminal law may have the effect of making the job of state prosecutors more difficult, even though their high level of competence is not in doubt.

This is not to say that reform in these areas of law will never happen.

The work of the LRC is relevant here. One of its reports reveals that, since 1994, it has championed numerous papers for consideration, and in 11 instances, outdated legislation was amended or repealed and new legislation introduced.

One of these was a paper that led to the amendment of the Women's Charter to include provisions on domestic violence and recognition of marriages of sex-changed persons.

But it is a cause for concern that some 10 papers are still pending consideration from the relevant ministries, without conclusive reply.

It is for these reasons that some commentators take the view that there is an opportunity here to establish a better-equipped and independent law reform body with a higher profile — much like the Law Commission in England and Wales.

The Law Commission is a statutory independent body to keep the law under review and to recommend reform where needed.

Its aims include helping to make the law as fair, modern, simple and as cost-effective as possible; conducting research and consultations and making recommendations to Parliament; and codifying the law, eliminating anomalies and repealing obsolete legislation.

In Singapore, this independent law reform body could combine the work of both the LRC and the LRRD. It should also more appropriately report directly to the Chief Justice who, unlike the Attorney-General, is independent.

Perhaps Singapore will look into this eventually. But for now, citizens can take satisfaction in the fact that they can write to the LRRD and hope that, one day, their suggestion will find its way into our legislation.

Happiness,
Dharmendra Yadav

2 comments:

Heng Cho Choon said...

I read with interest the News Comment "Our own Law Commission" (July 5) by Mr Dharmendra Yadav who proposed the setting up of our own Law Commission so that our laws do not lag behind the times in this IT age of super-fast communication.

Instead of having the Law Reform and Revision Division (LRRD) and the Law Reform Committee (LRC), perhaps it is time to amalgamate both into a Singapore Law Commission (SLC).

The need is even more urgent with the proliferation of online defamation, blogging and Web-posting.

According to the website of the Law Commission of England and Wales (www.lawcom.gov.uk), the Law Commission is the statutory body created by the Law Commissions Act 1965.

It is this commission that keeps the law under review and recommends reform where it is needed.

This body of commissioners consists of a chairman and four other commissioners appointed by the Lord Chancellor.

The commissioners usually include a teacher of law from a British university. They hold office for a period that does not exceed five years.

The duty of the Law Commission is to take and keep under review all the laws with which they are concerned, with a view to their systematic development and reform, including codification, the elimination of anomalies, the repeal of obsolete and unnecessary enactments, and simplification and modernisation.

On receiving any proposal for the reform of the law, it will submit — to the Minister — programmes for the examination of the law, with a view to reform any that is incongruent with the times. The Minister will then lay any such programmes before Parliament.

The commissioners are usually paid a salary determined by the Lord Chancellor and approved by the Treasury.

The Singapore Law Commission, if set up, could advise the ministers with a view to the abrogation of obsolete laws and the need to enact new laws to ensure they are in sync with the present era.

Radha S Khoo, Head (Corporate Communications), Ministry of Law said...

Mechanisms work well

Law reform bodies play specialist role; they don't act on every unsolicited feedback

We refer to the article "Our own law commission?" (July 5) and thank the writer for the suggestion for Singapore to have an independent body such as the Law Commission in England and Wales to keep laws under review.

All legal systems need law reform mechanisms to ensure that laws remain relevant and meet the changing needs of society. In most countries, the government would be the key institution for law reform. The Singapore Government regularly reviews its policies and legislation, and there is a proven track record in implementing necessary and beneficial reforms.

This is not to say that dedicated law reform agencies do not play an important role in the Government's law reform efforts. But theirs will be a specialist role, not the role that the writer seems to envisage. First, they do not make recommendations directly to Parliament. That is the role of an elected government. Second, they do not act on every unsolicited feedback from individual members of the public, and are generally employed on complicated legal issues that require extended research and analysis.

We have surveyed the work programmes of law reform agencies in the Commonwealth. In general, nearly all of them are either initiated or approved by the Executive arm of the Government. They usually report either to the Attorney-General or to a Minister.

In Singapore, we have two dedicated law reform agencies. They are the Law Reform Committee (LRC) of the Singapore Academy of Law, which is headed by the Chief Justice, and the Law Reform and Revision Division (LRRD) of the Attorney-General's Chambers. Both of them report to or work within independent and constitutionally protected institutions. The LRC and LRRD make their own decisions on the areas of law to review.

Given the pace of change in modern society, the range of legal topics for study and reform can be extensive and could change rapidly. It is not feasible for any agency to have all the required expertise in-house.

It is therefore important to draw upon the assistance of both private and public sector experts in the different areas that are being reviewed. This is the approach of both LRC and LRRD. The current arrangements have worked well and efficiently, producing reports that are of a high quality.