The Supreme Court of Singapore comprises the Court of Appeal and the High Court. The Supreme Court, the State Courts (previously known as Subordinate Courts), and Family Justice Courts together form the three tiers of the Singapore judiciary system. As a key organ of the state judiciary, the Supreme Court hears both civil and criminal cases, as well as appeals against the decisions of the lower courts.
The British introduced the judiciary and court system – based on English common law – to Singapore when it became part of the Straits Settlements in the 19th century.
Through the Second Charters of Justice introduced in 1826, a Court of Judicature that tried civil and criminal cases was established in Singapore. The court administered justice in the manner of courts in England, but also gave due attention to the religion and culture of local inhabitants. The Supreme Court Ordinance in 1868 abolished this court, and replaced it with the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements. In 1878, the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court was aligned with that of the new English High Court, after the passing of the United Kingdom's Judicature Acts from 1873 to 1875. This was followed by the establishment of a Court of Criminal Appeal in 1934.
The courts essentially ceased to function during the Japanese Occupation of Singapore from 1942 to 1945. Thereafter, Singapore became a crown colony and established its own Supreme Court. The High Court and Court of Appeal became the backbone of this Supreme Court.
The chief justices of the Supreme Court were traditionally British. The first Malayan-born judge, Tan Ah Tan, was appointed in 1955. The first Malayan chief justice was Wee Chong Jin, who replaced Alan Rose (Sir) in 1963.
Upon Singapore's merger with Malaysia, the Malaysian Courts of Judicature Act 1964 came into force on 16 March 1964, and repealed the provisions relating to the Singapore Supreme Court. The Supreme Court was replaced by the High Court of Malaysia in Singapore, while the Court of Appeal was integrated into the Federal Court.
In 1969 – four years after Singapore's independence, the Supreme Court of Singapore was re-established through the Supreme Court of Judicature Act. Among the changes made under this act was the abolition of jury trials for capital offenses in the same year. Such cases were tried by two judges until 1992, when amendments were made to the Criminal Procedure Code. Capital offences are now tried before a single judge.
Court governance and administration
There are eight main units or directorates in the Supreme Court, namely the Infrastructure and Court Services Directorate, Corporate Services Directorate, Finance Directorate, Office of Public Affairs, Internal Audit, Strategic Planning and Policy Directorate, Computer and Information Services Directorate, and Legal Directorate. These directorates handle the administration and operations of the organisation, and are overseen by the chief executive (Office of the Chief Justice).
The Supreme Court Registry is headed by the registrar, who is assisted by a deputy registrar, senior assistant registrars and assistant registrars. The Supreme Court Bench consists of the chief justice, the judges of appeal, judges, senior judges, international judges and the judicial commissioners of the Supreme Court. The Court Bench is assisted by the justices' law clerks, who carry out research work on the law, especially for appeal matters in the Court of Appeal.
In the 1990s, Wee's successor Yong Pung How streamlined court operations and implemented case management strategies that cleared a backlog of over 2,000 cases. Yong retired in 2006 and was succeeded by Chan Sek Keong. Other ground-breakers in the judiciary include Lai Siu Chiu, the first woman appointed to the Supreme Court Bench as judicial commissioner in 1991. She went on to become a judge of the High Court in 1994.
In recognition of its organisational excellence, the Supreme Court has received a number of national accolades, including the Singapore Quality Class Star Award in 2009, the Public Service Milestone Award in 2010 and the Public Service Achievement Award in 2014.
Some criticisms about the independence of Singapore's judiciary surfaced in 2009, after High Court judges ruled in favour of government leaders in a number of defamation suits and contempt of court cases against opposition politicians and foreign media. These criticisms were robustly answered by Chan, who cited measures such as the protection of judges' pay and tenure through the constitution as systemic safeguards against the influence of the government's executive branch over the judiciary.
The High Court's jurisdiction covers both civil and criminal cases. Its inherent authority allows it to try all offences committed in Singapore. Under certain circumstances, it may also prosecute offences that take place outside of the country. In practice, however, more than 95 percent of all cases are heard by the State Courts instead of the High Court.
Civil cases where the value of claim exceeds S$250,000 are heard in the High Court. Probate matters are dealt with in the High Court if the value of the deceased's estate exceeds S$3 million, or if the case involves the resealing of a foreign grant. Also dealt with in the High Court are ancillary matters in family proceedings involving assets of S$1.5 million or more, admiralty matters, bankruptcy proceedings, company winding-up proceedings and applications for admission of solicitors. Criminal cases prosecuted in the High Court usually involve offences that carry the death penalty, and those punishable with imprisonment for a term exceeding 10 years.
The High Court Bench consists of the chief justice and the judges of the High Court. Proceedings in the High Court are heard before a single judge, unless otherwise provided by any written law. Lists of dedicated specialist judges have also been set up in the High Court in view of the increasing complexity of commercial cases. The setting up of the lists enhances the Supreme Court's expertise and experience in the listed areas, and forms part of its efforts to promote Singapore as a premier centre for resolving domestic and international commercial disputes.
Court of Appeal
The Court of Appeal hears appeals against the decisions of the High Court. Its jurisdiction covers both civil and criminal matters.
The Court of Appeal is typically made up of three judges, with the bench presided over by the chief justice or, in his absence, another judge of appeal or judge of the Supreme Court. A judge, senior judge, international judge and judicial commissioner may sit in on the bench at the request of the chief justice. However, certain appeals – including those against interlocutory orders – may be heard by two judges, or more than three uneven number of judges, depending on the circumstances of the case.
The Supreme Court became Singapore's final court of appeal on 8 April 1994, when the Judicial Committee (Repeal) Act that abolished appeals to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council came into effect.
Court houses and facilities
The Supreme Court has operated from several iconic buildings since its establishment. The first law court of Singapore was housed in the Old Parliament House, which was then the bungalow of a merchant, John Argyle Maxwell. It was first opened in 1827, but the court was disturbed by noise from a boatyard situated next to it. To tackle this problem, the government began to build a new building for the court in 1864. The court house was shifted to the new building (eventually known as the Empress Place Building) for a few years, before moving back to the old site. Later In 1875, the courthouse was relocated again to the new annex of the Old Parliament House. It was then moved to the former Supreme Court Building near City Hall when the building was completed in 1939.
The Supreme Court moved to its present location at 1 Supreme Court Lane in 2005. The court building was officially opened in early 2006 by then President S. R. Nathan. It has 12 civil courts, eight criminal courts and three appellate courts. The building design is a modern interpretation of the colonial buildings in its surrounding, and mirrors the court's organisational structure. The courtrooms where the High Court hearings take place are located at the lower levels of the building. At the top of the building is a disc that symbolises the impartiality of justice.
Source: National Library Board