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The Supreme Court of Singapore comprises the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The Supreme Court and the Subordinate Courts together form the two tiers of the Singapore judiciary system. As a key organ of the state judiciary, the Supreme Court hears both civil and criminal cases as well as appeals against the decisions of the lower courts.
The British introduced the judiciary and court system, based on English common law, to Singapore when it became part of the Straits Settlements in the 19th century. Through three Charters of Justice introduced in 1819, 1826 and 1855, a Court of Judicature that tried civil and criminal cases was established in the Straits Settlements. The court administered justice in the manner of courts in England but also gave due attention to the religion and culture of local inhabitants. The Supreme Court Ordinance in 1868 abolished this court and replaced it with the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements. In 1878, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was aligned with that of the English High Court. This was followed by the establishment of a Court of Appeal in 1934.
After the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945, during which the courts had essentially ceased to function, Singapore became a separate Crown Colony and established its own Supreme Court. The High Court and Court of Appeal became the backbone of this Supreme Court. The Chief Justices of the Supreme Court were traditionally British. The first local-born judge, Tan Ah Tan, was appointed in 1955. The first local Chief Justice was Wee Chong Jin, who replaced Sir Alan Rose in 1963.
After the merger with Malaysia, the Malaysian Courts of Judicature Act 1964 repealed the provisions relating to the Singapore Supreme Court. The Singapore Supreme Court was replaced by the High Court of Malaysia in Singapore, while the Court of Appeal was assimilated into the Federal Court. It was only in 1969, four years after Singapore’s independence, that the Supreme Court of -Singapore was re-established through the Supreme Court of Judicature Act. Among the changes made by this court was the abolition of jury trials for capital offenses in 1969. Such cases are now tried before a single judge.
Court governance and administration
There are seven main units or directorates in the Supreme Court, namely the directorates for corporate services, finance and financial policy, corporate communications, legal services, corporate planning, computer information systems and e-learning, knowledge management and policy analysis. These directorates handle the operational side of the organisation and are overseen by the Supreme Court Bench and Supreme Court Registry.
Currently, the Supreme Court Registry is headed by the Registrar, who is assisted by a deputy registrar and assistant registrars. The Supreme Court Bench consists of the Chief Justice, the Judges of Appeal, Judges and the Judicial Commissioners of the Supreme Court. The Court Bench is assisted by law clerks who carry out relevant research work on the law and related appeal matters in the Court of Appeal.
Wee Chong Jin’s successor, Yong Pung How, streamlined court operations and implemented case management strategies that cleared a backlog of more than 2,000 cases in the 1990s. He retired in 2006 and was replaced by Chan Sek Keong. Other notable groundbreakers in the judiciary include Lai Siu Chiu, the first woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court Bench as Judicial Commissioner in 1991. She went on to become a Judge of the High Court in 1994.
The Supreme Court has received a number of national accolades in recognition of its organisational excellence, including the Singapore Quality Class Star Award in 2009 and the Public Service Milestone Award in 2010. In recent years, some criticisms about the independence of Singapore’s judiciary surfaced after High Court judges ruled in favour of government leaders in controversial defamation suits and contempt of court cases against opposition Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) leaders. These criticisms were robustly answered by Chief Justice Chan, who cited measures such as the protection of judges’ pay and tenure through the Constitution as systemic safeguards against the influence of the executive branch of government over the judiciary.
The High Court's jurisdiction covers both civil and criminal cases. It has the inherent jurisdiction to try all offences committed in Singapore and under certain circumstances and may also prosecute offences that take place outside the country. In practice, however, 95% of all cases are heard by the Subordinate Courts instead of the High Court except for certain categories of cases.
Civil cases where the subject matter of the claim exceeds S$250,000 are heard in the High Court. Probate matters are dealt with in the High Court if the value of the estate exceeds S$3 million or if the case involves the resealing of a foreign grant. Ancillary matters in family proceedings involving assets of S$1.5 million, admiralty matters, bankruptcy proceedings and application for admission of solicitors are also exclusively dealt with in the High Court. Criminal cases prosecuted in the High Court usually involve offences that carry the death penalty and those punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding 10 years. In addition, offences where bail is not allowed are also generally tried in the High Court.
The High Court Bench consists of the Chief Justice and the Judges of the High Court. Proceedings in the High Court are heard before a single judge, unless otherwise provided by any written law. The High Court has the right to appoint people with expertise in the subject matter of the proceedings to assist the court.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal hears appeals against the decisions of the lower courts in both the Supreme and Subordinate Courts. Its jurisdiction covers both civil and criminal matters. Among the more well-known cases heard by the Supreme Court was the 1950 Maria Hertogh custody case that resulted in racial riots. The Supreme Court became Singapore's final court of appeal on 8 April 1994, when the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council was abolished.
There are usually three Judges of Appeal, with the bench presided over by the Chief Justice or, in his absence, another Judge of Appeal. A Judge of the High Court may sit in on the bench at the request of the Chief Justice. However, certain appeals, including those against interlocutory orders, may be heard by only two judges or by more than three judges, depending on the circumstances of the case.
Court houses and facilities
The Supreme Court has operated from several iconic buildings since its establishment. The first courthouse was the former Parliament House, where the first court session was held in 1827. However, as the building was situated next to a shipbuilding yard, the noise from the yard frequently drowned out the addresses of the judge or evidence given by witnesses. The courthouse moved to the Empress Place Building in 1865 and later the Supreme Court Building near City Hall.
The Supreme Court finally moved to its present location at 1 Supreme Court Lane in 2005. The new court building was officially opened by President S. R. Nathan in early 2006. There are 12 civil courts, eight criminal courts and three appellate courts in the new building. The design of the current Supreme Court building departs from the neo-classical influences of its predecessor by mirroring the court’s organisational structure. The courtrooms where the High Court hearings take place are found in the lower levels of the building. At the top of the building is a disc that is a modern symbol of the impartiality of justice.
Faizah bte Zakaria
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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.
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