Chief Justice of Singapore
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The Chief Justice of Singapore presides over the Court of Appeal and is the most senior judicial officer in the republic. He is responsible for the overall functioning of the Singaporean judiciary, plays a role in numerous appointments and has other duties outside of the court system.
Method of appointment, qualifications and tenure
The Chief Justice is appointed by the President on the Prime Minister’s recommendation. All Supreme Court judges are required to have at least ten years’ experience as a member of the Singapore Legal Service or as a “qualified person” within the meaning of section two of the Legal Profession Act.
There is a retirement age of 65 for Supreme Court judges but extensions on a contractual basis are possible. Former Chief Justices Wee Chong Jin and Yong Pung How were regularly re-appointed until the ages of 73 and 80 respectively. If a nominee is already 65 or older, he is appointed for a renewable term, as was the case with Chan Sek Keong, the current Chief Justice.
Responsibilities and powers
On the bench
The Chief Justice is responsible for the entire judicial system’s operation and is president of the Court of Appeal, the higher part of the Supreme Court, the other part being the High Court. He has the discretion to transfer cases from the High Court to the District Court (part of the Subordinate Courts) if he believes it would be more efficient. If the Court of Appeal is not occupied, the Chief Justice and Judges of Appeal can hear High Court cases. Until 2006 the Chief Justice alone heard magistrate’s appeals from the Subordinate Courts, but now shares this duty with other High Court judges.
Powers of appointment
The Chief Justice is jointly or wholly responsible for numerous appointments:
- He submits nominations to the President for the district judges and magistrates of the Subordinate Courts, which hear 95% of all cases.
- He is consulted by the Prime Minister on Supreme Court appointees before the latter makes his recommendation to the President.
- He appoints all registrars for the Supreme Court and Subordinate Courts.
- He is empowered to designate Judges of Appeal as vice-presidents of the Court of Appeal and to invite High Court judges to hear cases with the Court of Appeal.
- He selects the members and chairman of the Inquiry Panel of the Law Society, which handles complaints against practising advocates. (He personally handles the disciplining of non-practising advocates and solicitors and legal officers.)
- He serves on the committee which confers the distinction of Senior Counsel on eminent advocates.
- Outside of the court system, he nominates one of the six members of the Council of Presidential Advisers for a renewable six-year term.
The Chief Justice serves on various bodies in an official capacity:
- He heads the Legal Service Commission, which oversees appointments to civil service jobs requiring legal qualifications.
- He is president of the Senate of the Singapore Academy of Law.
- By convention but not statutory requirement, all Chief Justices have chaired the Presidential Committee for Minority Rights, which ensures no legislation adversely affects minorities. The chairmanship is renewed triennially.
Special or unusual duties
Should a dispute arise over a presidential election, the Chief Justice hears the case or names another judge to do so.
If Parliament wishes to remove a President from office, the Chief Justice appoints and serves on a judicial panel to recommend to the Speaker whether or not the Members of Parliament can proceed with his removal.
In 2008, Chan Sek Keong became the first Chief Justice of any country to appear before the International Court of Justice when he was part of Singapore’s legal team in the Pedra Branca case. He had taken up the Pedra Branca case as Attorney General in 1994, and after his elevation to Chief Justice in 2006 the government decided to keep him on the team, due to his extensive knowledge.
Evolution of the office
From origins to merger
The post of Chief Justice was created in 1867 for the new colony of the Straits Settlements. When Singapore became a separate colony and civilian rule resumed in 1946, a Supreme Court of Singapore was established. Its first three Chief Justices were colonial officials who had served elsewhere in the British empire. In 1963, Wee Chong Jin became the first Asian and first member of the local bar to reach this position.
Judicial union with Malaysia
After the Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963, Wee became Chief Justice of the High Court of Malaysia in Singapore. He was a member of the Federal Court, the new federation’s highest court, along with his counterparts from Malaya and Borneo, other federal judges and the Lord President as chairman, though only three to five sat at once. The arrangement proved somewhat uneasy as Wee, who still felt a primary responsibility to Singapore, found the first Lord President condescending. Singapore became independent in 1965, but the countries’ legal systems remained united until the Supreme Court of Singapore was re-established with the passing of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act in 1969.
Wee occasionally served as Acting President during presidential illnesses or vacancies, but the drafters of the 1991 Constitutional Amendment creating an elected presidency felt that this arrangement could create conflicts of interest. The resulting procedure for filling presidential vacancies, while not explicitly precluding a current or former Chief Justice from doing so under certain circumstances, was designed to avoid this happening again.
Wee’s replacement Yong Pung How came to the bench after a long and successful private sector career. With his business experience and outsider’s perspective, he was conscious of the need to reform the courts and was well-qualified to deliver a better service to the public. The extensive reforms he implemented transformed a High Court burdened with a six-year backlog into one of the most efficient in the world.
The 1990s also saw the distinction between the two components of the Supreme Court formalised with a permanent Court of Appeal. This became Singapore’s final appellate court when appeals to Britain’s Judicial Committee of the Privy Council were ended.
List of Chief Justices
1946 - 1955 : Sir Charles Murray-Aynesley.
1955 - 1958 : Sir John Whyatt.
1959 - 1963 : Sir Alan Rose.
1963 - 1990 : Wee Chong Jin.
1990 - 2006 : Yong Pung How.
2006 - present : Chan Sek Keong.
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The information in this article is valid as at 2011 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.