Subordinate Courts renamed, to be led by High Court judge

Parliament amended the Subordinate Courts Act to make these changes, marking yet another milestone to enhance their standing, a concern that Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon had first raised last year in his speech opening the legal year.


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Here is the speech made in Parliament by Senior Minister Of State For Law, Indranee Rajah SC, on the Subordinate Courts (Amendment) Bill:

Second Reading Speech by Senior Minister Of State For Law, Indranee Rajah SC, on the Subordinate Courts (Amendment) Bill

Madam Speaker,

I beg to move, 'That the Bill be now read a second time'.

Introduction

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.

(a) More than 95 per cent of our Judiciary's total case load is handled by the Subordinate Courts.

(b) 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 Organisation.

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 emphasised 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:

a) Rename the "Subordinate Courts" as "State Courts";

b) Replace the office of the "Chief District Judge" with the office of the "Presiding Judge of the State Courts"; and

c) 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:

a) The civil jurisdiction of the State Courts has increased from $100,000 to $250,000 over the years.

b) The sentencing powers of the Magistrates' Courts and District Courts were recently increased.

c) The ability to make orders for community sentences was introduced.

28. It is also an assurance of the highest standard of leadership for the State Courts.

29. 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.

Conclusion

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.

Here is the speech by MP for Aljunied Sylvia Lim on the Subordinate Courts (Amendment) Bill in Parliament:

I support this Bill.

This Bill brings three important changes which I believe will enhance confidence in the justice meted out by the lower courts.

First, a sitting member of the Supreme Court bench will now be the Presiding Judge of the re-named State Courts. This change will potentially promote closer links with the Supreme Court and tighten its supervisory role over the lower courts, as compared to the current system of having the Chief District Judge with no direct connection to the Supreme Court. Having a sitting member of the Supreme Court head the State Courts also enhances its standing as an institution which, after all, hears the vast majority of cases affecting Singaporeans.

The second change is that the qualifying criteria for appointment of District Judges will be raised. A person to be appointed as a District Judge will now need to have at least 7 years post-qualification experience rather than 5 years. The third change is that the qualifying criteria for appointment of Magistrates will also be raised. Instead of needing just one year's post-qualification experience, a potential Magistrate will need to have 3 years' experience.

The raising of the qualifying experience is desirable and indeed necessary, as the powers of District Judges and Magistrates to make orders and sentence persons have been increased significantly over the years. At the last debate on the Subordinate Courts Amendment Bill in 2010, I spoke in some detail about Magistrates and the concern about giving them powers to grant injunctions, and how some of their decisions can be un-appealable under the current rules. This is worrying if we only require Magistrates to have graduated just one year before. To this end, I am glad the government has reviewed this matter for both District Judges and Magistrates. I believe the public will also feel more confident appearing before judicial officers with longer working experience.