I beg to move, ‘That the Bill be now read a second time’.
Madam Speaker, this Bill seeks to amend the Subordinate Courts Act to enhance the standing of the Subordinate Courts.
The Subordinate Courts play an integral role in the administration of justice in Singapore.
It is before these courts where a vast majority of people seek access to justice and the protection of our laws each day.
More than 95% of our Judiciary’s total case load is handled by the Subordinate Courts.
Its annual volume averages about 350,000 cases
In October last year, the Subordinate Courts were conferred the World Class Award. This is the highest honour for global performance excellence conferred by the Asia Pacific Quality Organization.
The Subordinate Courts have also received very positive feedback in court user surveys.
These are impressive achievements, and reinforces the continued faith the country has in the Judiciary.
Over the past few years, the Subordinate Courts have introduced initiatives to ensure that it remains a beacon of integrity that discharges its functions impartially, fairly and professionally.
In 2010, the Subordinate Courts reviewed and launched a new Justice Statement, which emphasized public trust and confidence.
Last year, its judges began donning robes, a symbol of authority, when presiding over hearings in open court.
Today, this Bill introduces 3 changes:
Rename the “Subordinate Courts” as “State Courts”;
Replace the office of the “Chief District Judge” with the office of the “Presiding Judge of the State Courts”; and
Increase the minimum statutory requirement for a legally qualified person to be a Magistrate and District Judge from 1 year to 3 years, and 5 to 7 years respectively.
I will now take the House through the main features of the Bill.
Rename the “Subordinate Courts” as “State Courts”
The majority of the Bill concerns the renaming of the “Subordinate Courts” to the “State Courts”.
However, the amendments go beyond a name change.
They underline the reality that the lower courts are the primary dispensers of justice.
As the Chief Justice noted in his address at this year’s Opening of the Legal Year, “the revised nomenclature will better reflect the primary position that these courts occupy within our judicial system”.
The nomenclature “State Courts” was chosen as it reflects the important national function that the State Courts perform in adjudicating disputes and dispensing justice, and combines dignity with gravitas.
With these amendments, the “State Courts” will replace the “Subordinate Courts” as the collective name for the District Courts, Magistrate Courts, Juvenile Courts, Coroner’s Court, and Small Claims Tribunal.
There will however be no change to the designations, scope of work and jurisdictions of these constituent courts.
Judicial Officers of the State Courts will also continue to be appointed as Magistrates and/or District Judges of the State Courts.
Replace the office of the “Chief District Judge” with the office of the “Presiding Judge of the State Courts”
Second, clauses 5 and 6 replace the office of the “Chief District Judge” (“CDJ”) with the office of the “Presiding Judge of the State Courts” (“PJSC”).
The office of the CDJ is the apex post in the Subordinate Courts.
In 2010, we re-designated this post from “Senior District Judge” to “Chief District Judge”.
That was mainly a nomenclature change.
Today’s Bill goes further.
Whereas the office of the CDJ has traditionally been occupied by officers of the Singapore Legal Service, the Bill provides that the PJSC shall be a Judge or Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court.
The elevation of the position of the PJSC reflects the wide-ranging jurisdiction and power vested in the State Courts, and the growing complexity of the cases filed there. For instance:
The civil jurisdiction of the State Courts has increased from $100,000 to $250,000 over the years.
The sentencing powers of the Magistrates’ Courts and District Courts were recently increased.
The ability to make orders for community sentences was introduced.
It is also an assurance of the highest standard of leadership for the State Courts.
There are four other characteristics of the PJSC that I would like to highlight.
First, having regard to the fact that a Judge or Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court will be the PJSC, the title “Chief District Judge” will no longer be appropriate.
The Bill therefore proposes to replace the title of the “Chief District Judge” with “Presiding Judge of the State Courts”.
Second, the PJSC is to be appointed by the President, on the recommendation of the Chief Justice, under a new section 8A of the amended Act.
The language of clause 5, which introduces section 8A, follows that for the appointment of the CDJ, District Judges and Magistrates under sections 9 and 10 of the Subordinate Courts Act.
Third, clause 5 empowers the PJSC to sit in any State Court.
When he so sits, he will have the same jurisdiction, power and privileges of the State Court he sits in.
Fourth, the PJSC will continue to be able to hear cases in the High Court during his appointment as PJSC, by virtue of his appointment as a Judge or Judicial Commissioner of the Supreme Court.
For instance, he may preside over appeals from the State Courts, save for matters which he had previously dealt with as the PJSC.
Clauses 5 and 11(7)(b) of the Bill confirm this position.
Increase the minimum statutory requirement for a legally qualified person to be a Magistrate and District Judge from 1 year to 3 years, and 5 to 7 years respectively
Next, clause 6 increases the minimum statutory requirement for a legally qualified person to be a District Judge from 5 years to 7 years.
The minimum statutory requirement for a legally qualified person to be a Magistrate will also be increased from 1 year to 3 years under clause 7.
When the Subordinate Courts Act was amended 20 years ago in 1993, Assoc Prof Ho Peng Kee said before this House:
“Dispensation of justice and application of the law do not take place in a vacuum but in the context of Singapore’s social milieu. Not only is legal knowledge important but also wisdom that comes with experience in dealing with matters of the world.”
As our legal profession matures, it is timely for these minimum statutory requirements to be reviewed.
Subordinate Court’s practice has been to appoint judicial officers with longer experience than that statutorily required to these positions.
In fact, the average length of experience before they are appointed is about 17 years.
These officers have delivered stellar results over the years.
Given the expanded functions and powers of these judicial officers, raising the criterion to appointment to guarantee a more experienced and mature Bench will underscore the importance of the responsibilities which these Judicial Officers carry out.
This will in turn enhance the standing of the State Courts.
We recognise that because of the raised criterion, there could be situations where deserving candidates may not qualify for appointment as a District Judge or Magistrate.
For instance, mid or second career officers who seek to join the Subordinate Courts may not satisfy the raised minimum statutory requirement, but may have such substantial work and life experience as to qualify them for consideration as judicial officers.
As such, clause 6(d) accords the Chief Justice a discretion to waive the requirement of 7 years as a legally qualified person for appointment of a District Judge to 5 years, having regard to that person’s qualifications and experience.
Cl 7(b) creates a similar exception for Magistrates who only have between 1 to 3 years experience.
Madam Speaker, in conclusion, I would say that the public reposes a great deal of trust and confidence in the Subordinate Courts – and indeed our Judiciary generally.
We trust them to apply the law impartially, uphold our laws and dispense justice fairly.
The mission of the Subordinate Courts is “to provide an effective and accessible system of justice, inspiring public trust and confidence”.
These amendments reflect that mission.
Madam Speaker, I beg to move.
Note : Please refer to translation of key terms below
State Courts 国家法院
Presiding Judge of the State Courts 国家法院首席法官
State Courts – Mahkamah Negara
Presiding Judge of the State Courts – Ketua Hakim Mahkamah Negara
State Courts – அரசு நீத
மன்றங்கள் (Arasu Neethimandrangal)
Presiding Judge of the State Courts – அரசு நீதிமன்றங்களின் தலைமை நீதிபதி