Significant changes to Singapore's legal landscape were passed by Parliament yesterday, allowing the setting up of a court to deal with international cases, and a new body to regulate all law firms - both local and foreign - here.
Traditional law firm structures are also set to change after non- lawyer employees were allowed to become partners, directors or shareholders.
Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the setting up of the Singapore International Commercial Court (SICC) will allow the country to draw on the significant opportunities in cross-border deals and disputes arising from the region's tremendous economic growth.
The SICC, which will hear international commercial disputes, complements existing arbitration services and an upcoming international mediation centre, allowing Singapore to provide a full suite of dispute resolution options.
"Parties involved in cross-border disputes rely on the courts in London or New York, if they do not want to arbitrate... There is presently no equivalent default court in Asia. Our intention is to become that default court. No other country provides this option. We want to be the first, and we want to succeed," said the minister.
He added that the new court will bank on Singapore's outstanding "brand name" for good governance, low corruption and efficiency, its highly regarded judiciary and high-quality legal services.
"Our neutrality is also an important factor which will help," he said.
Both sides of the House lauded the SICC's advent. Describing the move as "bold and creative", MP Hri Kumar Nair (Bishan-Toa Payoh GRC) said "the SICC represents a new way of thinking about international dispute resolution".
Workers' Party MP Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) added the SICC and the appointment of international judges have "the potential of making Singapore a key centre for legal work in Asia".
Mr Shanmugam also provided details of the new Legal Services Regulatory Authority - under the Ministry of Law - which will regulate all law firms.
Before, the Attorney-General's Chambers dealt with foreign firms while the Law Society handled matters relating to local ones.
This "integrated licensing system" will make it more convenient for law firms to set up offices in Singapore by "streamlining processes" and will ensure that there is a more coherent and consistent regulatory approach, he said.
Changes to the Legal Profession Act also provide for the setting up of "Legal Disciplinary Practices" which allow non-lawyer employees to become partners, directors or shareholders.
But such firms will only be allowed to offer legal services for now, unlike other alternative models which allow them to offer other services such as accountancy.
A Professional Conduct Council to oversee the issue of professional conduct rules for both Singapore-qualified and foreign-qualified lawyers practising law here will also be set up.
WP MP Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) noted that this "makes rather drastic changes in the way the legal profession is organised and regulated" and that it eroded the Law Society's role. But Mr Shanmugam said the move is necessary "for us to adapt, anticipate, and keep ahead of changes and have a certain logical framework".
Overall, the changes to the Legal Profession Act will modernise and streamline the regulatory framework for lawyers and law practices. These amendments seek to "maintain high professional standards in the legal industry", he said.
What's special about the SICC
It is an international court with specialist jurists hearing international commercial disputes.
Disputes it will hear include those governed by foreign law and in which the parties have agreed to use the SICC, or the case has been transferred from the High Court.
It will complement existing arbitration services and broaden the suite of dispute resolution options to attract regional and international parties to settle their disputes here.
Singapore lawyers and law firms will have more opportunities to tap Asia's growth, as the SICC brings "offshore work" here.
It is the first in Asia to help businesses involved in cross-border disputes.
This article was first published on November 5, 2014.
Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.