New code of conduct to cover all lawyers here

KEY changes to the legal system are being drawn up in a bid for a more consistent way to regulate and discipline lawyers.

Top of the list is a new code of conduct that will apply to all lawyers here, both local- and foreign-qualified, more of whom are working in Singapore.

Currently, those called to the Bar here come under the Law Society and the Supreme Court, while foreign-qualified lawyers practising here answer to the Attorney-General.

Also being planned is a new regulatory body to oversee the industry. The Legal Services Regulatory Authority, which will come under the Ministry of Law, will have powers to investigate and issue warnings, impose fines or revoke licences in the event that a firm steps out of line.

This central body would put the processes under one roof, instead of the current disparate licensing systems for local and foreign firms.

And in a fundamental shift to the way law firms are set up, employees who are not lawyers, such as chief financial officers, will be allowed to own a limited stake in the firm. Traditionally, only lawyers can own law firms.

These changes were the key recommendations of a 13-member high-level committee chaired by Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon which was tasked in 2012 with reviewing Singapore's legal framework.

The Law Ministry on Monday announced that it has said yes to the committee's report, and is expected to table the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill before the end of this year, turning the recommendations into law. But before that, the ministry will be seeking feedback on the Bill.

The Law Society president, Senior Counsel Lok Vi Ming, said the changes were a "logical progression towards integration" given the substantial number of foreign-qualified lawyers here. "It makes sense to have one common set of standards," he said.

As of last June, there were 1,054 foreign-qualified lawyers practising here, making up 20 per cent of the 5,260 lawyers here.

To oversee the new rules, a Professional Conduct Council, made up of senior members of the judiciary, the Attorney-General's Chambers, Law Society, Ministry of Law, and members of the legal community, will be formed.

Besides a common set of conduct rules, both foreign and local lawyers will be subject to the same discipline regime.

The current system which puts local-qualified lawyers under the purview of the Law Society, with the Supreme Court having an oversight role, will remain.

Lawyers who got their qualifications abroad will now be subject to the same discipline process, but with a foreign-qualified lawyer on the tribunal at each stage of the process until it reaches the Court of Three Judges.

They will face the same sanctions as local-qualified lawyers, and the Court of Three Judges, the highest disciplinary tribunal, may also report disciplinary matters to their home jurisdiction.

selinal@sph.com.sg


Get a copy of The Straits Times or go to straitstimes.com for more stories.