SINGAPORE - A new law passed in Parliament on Tuesday (Sept 14) will provide clear rules on how the Attorney-General (A-G) can intervene in court cases when he deems that there is a public interest reason to do so.
Under the Courts (Civil and Criminal Justice) Reform Act, the Attorney-General will be able to apply to the court for permission to intervene in any court proceedings.
As long as the Attorney-General has adequately set out the reasons, the court will not be able to look into the merits of the reasons and must admit the Attorney-General as a party.
At this stage, the existing parties in the case will be able to object and apply to have the Attorney-General removed.
This is among the changes to court processes proposed under the new law, which seeks to improve the justice system.
Responding to MPs during the debate, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said the statutory framework on the Attorney-General's intervention is based on the established role of the Attorney-General as the guardian of the public interest.
He said parties to civil litigation are often seeking to interpret the rules in their own favour.
"If they succeed, it is the man in the street who will ultimately pay the bill. The A-G puts his arguments forward to protect the man in the street," Mr Shanmugam added.
The provision had attracted questions from Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh, MPs Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok) and Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (Chua Chu Kang GRC) as well as Nominated MP Shahira Abdullah.
Mr Singh raised concerns about the fact that the court would not be able to look at the outset into the public interest grounds cited by the Attorney-General.
He also asked why there was a need to change the current procedures, in which the Attorney-General applies to intervene and the courts decide case by case, noting that this was well accepted and widely practised in common law countries.
To this, Mr Shanmugam said the change will lend certainty to this area of law, and also prevent protracted litigation concerning the Attorney-General's right to intervene, which could draw out the case.
He cited the case ARW v Comptroller of Income Tax, in which a private company had applied to inspect internal documents belonging to the Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore.
The Attorney-General's application to intervene was rejected by the company. Eventually, the Court of Appeal allowed the Attorney-General to intervene, but 20 months had already been lost, noted Mr Shanmugam.
Ultimately, he added, the court still decides on the merits of the case, and the Attorney-General is merely a party assisting the court.
Dr Shahira asked who would bear the costs if the parties in a case choose not to appeal against the court's decision but the Attorney-General decides to do so. Mr Shanmugam said this would be decided by the courts.
He also said his ministry will study whether the Attorney-General's role as guardian of the public interest should be enshrined in the Constitution, in response to a suggestion by Mr Murali.
The new law also covers how remote court hearings can be conducted through video links, and how paper hearings can be conducted through the submission of documents alone, without the need for lawyers and parties to be in court.
This comes after the Covid-19 pandemic curtailed in-person interactions, and made remote hearings necessary so people would have access to justice amid safe distancing measures.
Under the new law, the court will now have the power to decide on any case based on written submissions and documents submitted by parties, without any oral hearing.
Such "paper hearings" will save costs and time, said Mr Shanmugam, adding that the court will decide on whether cases can be suitably dealt with in this manner.
MP Desmond Choo (Tampines GRC) asked about the security of remote hearings, and whether there could be a danger of impersonation of parties or witnesses with the rise of deep-fake technologies.
Mr Shanmugam said the courts are considering adopting new identification technologies that are in the works under the National Digital Identity project.
This article was first published in The Straits Times. Permission required for reproduction.