Annual occasion a time for commitment and mirth for legal community

SINGAPORE - There is one annual event in Singapore's legal year that needs no anniversary to underline its lustre or worth: the Opening of the Legal Year (OLY) at the Supreme Court.

Taking place on Monday (Jan 8), as in every January, the Supreme Court Bench led by Chief Justice will turn out in full ceremonial regalia to herald the OLY and to set out the main legal agenda for the year.

Also addressing the assembly of spiffily-dressed lawyers, invited guests and others from the legal community including luminaries from abroad, are the Attorney-General and the President of the Law Society.

Why does the event bear public notice?

In a way, it is perhaps to the legal community what the ceremonial opening of Parliament is to the public in setting the agenda and identifying the concerns for the term ahead.

The OLY provides a time for the three stakeholders in the justice system to take stock of where they are and want to go.

Second, it is an occasion for the legal community to reaffirm its commitment to the rule of law and their respective roles in maintaining it.

Third, it is time for the community to collectively get together and interact on a more personal basis.

Fourth, it is an opportunity to collectively communicate to the public that the justice system is a cornerstone in Singapore's well being.

Based on past OLYs, these annual events could also produce colourful stories even though they might happen behind closed doors.

Consider then-Law Society president Peter Low's run-in with then-Chief Justice Yong Pung How at the 1994 OLY.

In the book Fiat Justitia, legal historian Kevin Tan wrote that just before the official proceedings began, Chief Justice Yong had turned to Mr Low and said "Peter, the Council of Judges have unanimously recommended abolishing appeals to the Privy Council. Will the Law Society support?"

A stunned Mr Low stalled for time and said he would set up a committee to study this. The CJ then publicly said the Law Society did not support the move but was instead setting up a committee to discuss the matter.

Speaking to The Straits Times last week, Mr Low said the episode underlined the event's importance "because it is the occasion when the three arms of the profession - the Attorney-General, the Law Society president and the Chief Justice - makes important announcements as to the future directions of the profession.

"During 1994, when I was the president of the Law Society, Chief Justice Yong Pung How announced the abolishing of the rights of appeals to the privy council," he told ST.

Eight years earlier, there was even more intense verbal drama when the then-CJ Wee Chong Jin set aside his prepared text and responded impromptu in stern terms to then Law Soc president Francis Seow's controversial speech which had not been given to the CJ in advance, a break from tradition.

Immediate ex-president Harry Elias went up to Seow after the ceremony and told him"Francis, this is not how it is done. You speak quietly to the Chief Justice", according to Professor Tan in his book.

But such encounters aside, OLYs were not complete without their fair share of mirth.

For instance, a rapt audience let out a roar of laughter listening to a good-humoured CJ Chan Sek Keong's address at OLY 2010 when he said in half-jest that he had been pre-empted from citing some data to illustrate a point because the statistics had appeared in a report in The Straits Times that same morning.

However, such anecdotes stand dwarfed by the grave overall tenor of the whole occasion where headline-grabbing new initiatives are often announced.

Such as Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon's call last year urging lawyers to rethink their practice in the wake of technology transforming the legal sector more rapidly.

He had then announced a five-year technology blueprint charting the "courts of the future" to be steered by a committee to forge and review the initiatives ahead.

Digital technology is appearing to tweet its way into becoming the dominant catalyst for change in the way the legal system will operate and perhaps more can be expected by way of new developments in the OLYs this year and beyond.

But such geeks do not detract from the enduring role of the OLY event to affirm and bear witness to the Singapore community that traditions are important .

The annual assembly within the hallowed hall of justice conveys from one generation to the next the uniqueness of the the different branches of the legal system and their importance in both preserving and enhancing them for the common good.

In essence, all are gathered on the OLY day to consecrate the rule of law - not the "rule of lawyers", as historian Niall Ferguson once said.