Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Judicial Conduct in Singapore

We often see the issue of professional conduct of lawyers being raised in the context of the Singapore legal system. For some years now, I have been meaning to generate a discussion about judicial conduct in Singapore. I had faced some resistance from the mainstream media when I sought to raise this issue in the past. Given this sensitivity, I also felt it was not appropriate to raise it in alternative media. I finally mooted this issue in a series of letters between me and the Chief Justice's office published in The Straits Times Singapore. In personal conversations, several lawyers expressed surprise that there was an avenue for clients to directly provide feedback on issues of judicial conduct. I hope more people will utilise this avenue to improve the Singapore judicial organ.

Dharmendra Yadav


I welcome the formation of the study committee by the Singapore Academy of Law, with the Law Society's participation, to look into the issue of lawyers' professional conduct ("Lawyers told to stop behaving badly in court"; July 19).

In a similar vein, this may also be an opportune time for the Singapore Academy of Law, where the Chief Justice is its current president, to seek feedback on the issue of judicial conduct from lawyers, the Law Society and other stakeholders of the legal profession.

I note that the Law Society president has relied on anecdotal feedback about lawyers from members of the State and High Courts. Anecdotal accounts of lawyers may well suggest that Singapore could do with a body to look into issues of judicial conduct.

Several world-class common law jurisdictions, such as Australia, Canada, New Zealand and England, now have an independent body of some sort that receives and considers feedback or complaints about judicial conduct.

Such a procedure does not, and cannot, provide a mechanism for disciplining a judge. However, it can offer a process by which complaints by a member of the public or a lawyer about judicial conduct can be brought to the attention of the Chief Justice and the judge concerned, and provide a platform for a complaint to be dealt with in an appropriate manner.

Such a body can be empowered to receive feedback about, among other things, racial or religious discrimination by judges, general rudeness of judges, misuse of judicial status for personal gain or advantage, failure to fulfil judicial obligations or duties, or failure by a judge hearing a matter to declare a potential conflict of interest.

In jurisdictions where such a body exists, it has been found that it has helped to enhance public confidence in and protect the impartiality and integrity of the judicial system. Such a body is even more necessary, given the statutory codification and enhancement of Singapore's contempt of court framework by Parliament in recent years.

Indeed, the Singapore Academy of Law may be best positioned to propose such a body through the work of its current study committee. I also hope it will use this opportunity to provide a responsible and constructive platform for a frank and candid discussion about the professional conduct of both lawyers and judges.

Dharmendra Yadav


We agree with Mr Dharmendra Yadav that there are benefits in having in place a process to receive and consider complaints of judicial misconduct ("Set up body to look into judicial conduct issues"; last Sunday).

This will safeguard public confidence in and protect the impartiality and integrity of the judicial system.

The Singapore judiciary has put such procedures in place with a view to ensuring that any feedback and complaints concerning judicial conduct are brought to the attention of the relevant presiding judges and the Chief Justice, investigated and dealt with appropriately.

At the Supreme Court, the Office of Public Affairs (OPA), under the charge of the chief executive, now serves as a single point of contact between the Supreme Court and the public. The OPA is a channel to receive and process feedback and complaints from lawyers and other court users. Where any feedback pertains to judicial conduct, the chief executive and OPA provide the Chief Justice with the necessary fact-finding and administrative support.

The Family Justice Courts and State Courts also have frameworks in place for handling and investigating feedback and complaints against judges.

Substantiated complaints against judges will be brought by the presiding judges to the attention of the Chief Justice to determine whether and, if so, what further action may be required.

As head of the judiciary, the Chief Justice is ultimately responsible for judicial conduct and standards in Singapore.

Complaints against the conduct of our judges are rare. Most of the complaints received were from litigants seeking the intervention of the Chief Justice in relation to the unfavourable outcome of their court proceedings, for which the appropriate recourse is to lodge an appeal.

The system that we have established balances the demands of public accountability and judicial independence.

Juthika Ramanathan (Ms)
Chief Executive
Office of the Chief Justice
Supreme Court


I welcome the appointment of the Office of Public Affairs (OPA) of the Supreme Court to serve as a single point of contact between the Supreme Court and the public on matters of judicial conduct, among other things ("System in place to handle feedback on judicial conduct" by the Office of the Chief Justice, Supreme Court; Aug 9).

Unfortunately, unlike the courts in other common law jurisdictions, hardly any information about such an initiative is available publicly.

I suggest the OPA take immediate steps to enhance the websites of the Supreme Court, Family Justice Courts and the State Courts, and include guidance sections on providing feedback to the Chief Justice about judicial conduct. Similarly, guidance material can be made available at the courts.

Such guidance can go some way towards reducing complaints from litigants on the unfavourable outcome of their court proceedings, for which I agree the appropriate recourse is the appellate process.

Perhaps, the role of the OPA can be expanded to receive feedback on similar matters in the Family Justice Courts and State Courts.

After all, it is the OPA that now administratively supports the Chief Justice in exercising his ultimate responsibility for judicial conduct and standards in Singapore.

This is better than the current modus operandi of leaving such critical matters to these lower courts to deal with, for which little information exists.

In time, I am hopeful that such guidance can help procure feedback on judicial conduct, and it will help enhance the public perception that the Chief Justice takes such feedback on judicial conduct seriously.

Dharmendra Yadav