Time to quicken pace of social justice law reform

As frontline champions of social justice in the courtroom, such as in the Supreme Court (above), lawyers have played an important role in developing court-made law.
As frontline champions of social justice in the courtroom, such as in the Supreme Court (above), lawyers have played an important role in developing court-made law.PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

THE recent enactment of the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2014 and the amendments to the Animals and Birds Act were notable for being rare instances of Private Member's Bills being passed by Parliament.

Not since the mid-1990s, when the Maintenance of Parents Act and the Family Violence Bill were initiated by former Nominated MPs Walter Woon and Kanwaljit Soin respectively, has Singapore seen a mini flurry of such Bills in Parliament.

After Professor Woon's effort in 1994, it was another 16 years before Mr Seah Kian Peng's bid in 2010 to strengthen the Maintenance of Parents Act became only the second such Bill to be successfully enacted into law.

Private Member's Bills are introduced by MPs who are not ministers. The paucity of such Bills in the past 20 years raises the issue of whether more can be done to address the gaps in social justice in Singapore from a law reform perspective.

Generally, social justice law reforms are reactionary. For example, in November last year, the unsavoury episode of a foreign tourist who was allegedly cheated by a mobile phone retailer triggered a review of our consumer protection laws. Also, the rapid rise of cyber bullying and online vigilantism in Singapore led to the creation of the Protection from Harassment Act 2014, 17 years after a similar statute was enacted in Britain.

While real-life events should drive law reform and laws evolve with changing societal norms, not efficiently plugging the gaps in social justice may weaken society's collective conscience and pull us away from being a truly just society. As frontline champions of social justice in the courtroom, lawyers have played an important role in developing court-made law. It is, therefore, not surprising that the only two Private Member's Bills that have been drafted from inception - the Maintenance of Parents Act and the Prevention of Human Trafficking Act 2014 - were mooted by lawyers.

Proactive law reform by individuals is, however, subject to the constraints of time, resources and commitment. The increasing complexity of Singapore society and its laws makes drafting a Bill from scratch a daunting task for any single law reformer. While governmental and civil society resources may be made available to support the drafting of Private Member's Bills, other stakeholders that have the ability and resources to propose social justice law reforms should be involved.

One such stakeholder is the Law Society of Singapore, where the collective legal expertise and knowledge of its more than 4,000 members reside. However, a potential impediment is Section 38(1)(c) of the Legal Profession Act, which provides that one of the purposes of the Law Society is to "assist the Government and the courts in all matters affecting legislation submitted to it, and the administration and practice of the law in Singapore".

The words "submitted to it" were added arising from a high-profile brouhaha in 1986, where the then president of the Law Society issued a press release critiquing the Newspaper and Printing Presses (Amendment) Bill. Subsequently, Section 38(1)(c) was amended to revert to the position in colonial times, so as to prevent the Law Society from being used as a political pressure group to advance law reforms.

In reality, Section 38(1)(c) may not present an obstacle to the Law Society presenting proactive social justice law reforms today, given the willingness of the Government to consult on proposed laws and the inherent desirability of laws that promote social justice. In any case, lawyers' views on social justice law reforms may be sought through a variety of forums, and not necessarily through the Law Society.

Nevertheless, a policy of inclusiveness, reflected both in practice and in the statute books, appeals to the writer as a more promising foundation for promoting the public good. Such a policy may be reflected by inserting in Section 38(1)(c) a carve-out of appropriate areas, such as consumer protection law and community law, where the Law Society should be permitted to propose legislation for or comment on existing legislation.

This amendment will signal to lawyers their wider collective role in advancing social justice and legitimise the Law Society's role to bring together practitioners from various fields to share their frontline experiences, identify gaps in social justice and recommend legislative solutions where appropriate.

While it may not be possible for the government of the day to be neutral on some issues, a polity of mutual constructive engagement will certainly promote a more robust and engaged civic society. One particular area in which more discussion is needed is whether laws relating to the protection and care of elderly persons need to be strengthened. Recent cases highlighting the elderly's vulnerability should give greater impetus for proactive law reforms in this area.

In America, elder law encompasses a wide range of complex issues such as age discrimination, elder abuse and neglect, and end-of-life decisions. An Elder Law Bill which consolidates and addresses these issues holistically may be an efficient way to manage the challenges faced by Singapore's ageing population. As the representative body of all Singapore-qualified practising lawyers, the Law Society is best placed to harness the shared experiences of lawyers who provide legal services to elderly persons in diverse practice settings.

Ultimately, the fear today is that we are unable to close the gaps in social justice speedily through law reforms, which may have serious ramifications for the future of Singapore society. The Law Society, not only individual lawyers, should have a vital proactive role to quicken the pace of social justice law reforms where needed.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is managing partner, RHTLaw TaylorWessing LLP