THE law governing disciplinary proceedings for lawyers is being tightened to cut down on delays and weed out baseless complaints.
It has long been a bane, for example, that it takes far too long - three years in some cases - for errant lawyers to be tried before the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary body they can face.
The wait will now be slashed.
This and other proposed changes to the Legal Profession Act come from a wide-ranging report by a high-powered panel led by Judge of Appeal V.K. Rajah.
When the report was released last December, the Government accepted its recommendations.
On the issue of delays in disciplinary proceedings, the law will be amended so that a disciplinary tribunal will comprise just two persons: a Senior Counsel or former judge or judicial commissioner and a lawyer of at least 12 years' standing.
Disciplinary tribunals currently consist of four people, namely two lawyers in private practice, a legal officer in the public sector and a lay person.
Veteran lawyer Peter Low, a former Law Society president, noted that the schedules of the panel of the four, as well as the counsel for both sides, had to be coordinated. He told The Straits Times: 'They are busy people and it's difficult to set hearing dates when all six are free.'
Disciplinary hearings have thus been known to drag on for 15 months.
On the fact that the new tribunals will no longer have a lay person, lawyer Amolat Singh said the lay person had no voting power anyway and his role was only to ensure transparency in the process.
Concerns about the lack of transparency would be addressed with a former judge presiding over the disciplinary hearing, he said.
Only complaints that make it past this stage will be heard in the Court of Three Judges.
But even before a complaint to the Law Society reaches the disciplinary tribunal, it would have spent time in a review committee, followed by a inquiry committee.
A significant number of complaints fall by the wayside, thrown out at any of these earlier stages, Mr Low noted.
This means that lawyers end up being tied down for a long time over allegations that eventually fail to stand up.
The Bill to amend the Legal Profession Act is also proposing a timetable to speed up the earlier stages of the process. Review committees, for instance, must now wrap up their work in four weeks.
Another proposed change: If six or more years have lapsed since the lawyer's alleged misconduct, the Law Society cannot, without permission of the court, open investigations into the complaint.
The draft law also has measures to deter frivolous complaints, by requiring a complainant to furnish a statutory declaration or affidavit to support an allegation and to bear the costs for those involved in the proceedings.
The draft law will also allow a person awarded such costs to sue for recovery of the money.
Mr Singh, hailing the measures as 'a move in the right direction', said that while they ensured that those who filed complaints were held accountable, they would not deter those with genuine grievances against errant lawyers.