SINGAPORE - Judicial Commissioner Hoo Sheau Peng has become the first woman to hear criminal cases in the High Court, unlike other female judges in the same court who preside over non-criminal matters.
In recent months Ms Hoo, 45, has presided over murder, trafficking and rape cases - cases previously handled by male judges in the High Court.
While women judges have served in the High Court since Justice Lai Siu Chiu started doing so in 1991, The Straits Times has confirmed that this marks the first time that a woman judge is presiding over criminal cases there.
Calling this a ground-breaking move, lawyers said Judicial Commissioner Hoo is, however, no newcomer to criminal cases as she has "distinguished herself" as a senior district judge at the then Subordinate Courts hearing such cases. But criminal cases there involve less serious crimes and lower penalties.
While gender should not affect the outcome of cases, we have come a long way since, with a female Speaker of Parliament now. Having a female judge hear criminal cases should not be a surprise, but a welcome development.
LAWYER GRACE MORGAN, referring to Madam Halimah Yacob, who became Speaker in 2013.
"The difference is that in the High Court, she has been hearing cases that potentially involve the death penalty, like drug trafficking cases," said lawyer Amolat Singh.
Last month, the judge convicted Sujay Solomon, 34, of culpable homicide after an earlier five-day trial.
Solomon had stabbed his mother in the neck and slit her throat at their Bukit Batok flat after the latter rejected his request for money. He is due to be sentenced later.
Earlier this year, the judge heard the case of Chinese national Huang Qinyun, who was convicted of raping a 23-year-old Malaysian in a Bukit Batok flat.
Huang was sentenced to 11 years and six months in jail and six strokes of the cane. He was also convicted of making an obscene film.
Lawyer Grace Morgan said: "While gender should not affect the outcome of cases, we have come a long way since, with a female Speaker of Parliament now. Having a female judge hear criminal cases should not be a surprise, but a welcome development." She was referring to Madam Halimah Yacob, who became Speaker in 2013.
Other lawyers noted there was a limited pool of judges hearing criminal cases in the High Court, including Justice Choo Han Teck and Justice Tay Yong Kwang, and the inclusion of Judicial Commissioner Hoo could have evolved out of changing circumstances.
The judge, a President's Scholar with a first-class law degree from Cambridge University, joined the legal service in 1993, and became a Judicial Commissioner at the High Court last year.
She had previously served as deputy chief counsel (advisory and administration) of the civil division of the Attorney-General's Chambers and as deputy chief of staff of the Singapore Legal Service.
Mr Sunil Sudheesan, acting president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers Singapore, lauded the judge's move to hear criminal cases, pointing out that "she is known for her excellent temperament".
Mr Niru Pillai, a senior director at Global Law Alliance, said: "The courts are perhaps sending a message that there are now woman judges prepared to hear serious criminal cases involving crimes of a capital nature."