Judges not infallible, but corrective procedures like appeals can set things right: Chief Justice

Chief Justice Sudaresh Menon (centre) speaks at the Opening of Legal Year 2021 on Jan 11, 2021.
Chief Justice Sudaresh Menon (centre) speaks at the Opening of Legal Year 2021 on Jan 11, 2021.ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

SINGAPORE - Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon, in giving his first comments on the high-profile Parti Liyani case, said on Monday (Jan 11) that a sound justice system begins with the selection of judges - but they are not infallible.

However, a system of corrective procedures such as appeals are in place - and work well - to set right what might have initially gone amiss, he said in his speech to mark the opening of the legal year.

The annual event was conducted this year via video-conference for the first time.

Chief Justice Menon, Attorney-General Lucien Wong and Law Society president Gregory Vijayendran delivered their customary speeches from the State Courts' Havelock Hall, with the proceedings livestreamed to about 1,000 participants.

The case of Ms Parti, a former domestic worker who was accused of stealing from the family of her employer, was mentioned by all three speakers.

She was initially convicted by a State Courts judge following a trial, but in September last year, High Court judge Chan Seng Onn allowed her appeal and acquitted her.

Ms Parti's case sparked public outcry, which led to a marathon nine-hour parliamentary debate over the fairness of the criminal justice system.

In his speech, the Chief Justice said the quest for a sound system of justice begins with the selection of judges with the appropriate temperament, ability and integrity and commitment to carry out their heavy responsibilities.

But even so, judges are not infallible.

"That is precisely why virtually all judicial structures in the world incorporate a system of corrective procedures such as appeals, so that where something might have gone amiss at first instance, there is the opportunity to set it right," he said.

"Justice Chan Seng Onn was confronted with that responsibility in Ms Parti Liyani's case. He carefully scrutinised the evidence that had been led, the arguments that were advanced before him and the judgment of the trial court and arrived at his decision for reasons that he explained in considerable detail."

Adding that "we must constantly look beyond the fact that we have corrective court procedures that work well", he said the judiciary has also been working on enhancing training and development programmes for judges and judicial officers in recent years.

The Singapore Judicial College, which was founded in 2015, is now an integral part of the judiciary, running a calendar of programmes and developing a competency framework to enhance training of judicial officers.

Judicial officers in the State Courts and Family Justice Courts will also have more opportunities to be mentored by High Court judges, he said.

The Chief Justice stressed: "Judges and prosecutors serve no commercial interest. The only interest they serve is to do right by the law."

He said the State Courts, which serve as the gateway to the justice system for most litigants in Singapore, have done outstanding work over the years.

Giving a sense of the State Courts' workload, he said that in 2019,  close to 110,000 cases from the criminal justice, civil justice and community justice and tribunals divisions were attended to by 91 judicial officers.

In the most recent survey of court users, all the respondents agreed that the State Courts administer justice fairly regardless of race, language or religion, while 99 per cent agreed that the State Courts dispense justice independently according to the law.

"We may harbour strong views about a given case, but when all is said and done, it goes without saying that we must respect the final judicial outcome because, whether or not one agrees with a decision, the process that culminates in it affords us the best means we have for resolving our differences in a way that is fair, honest and conduces to orderly relations."

The Chief Justice added that it was "unhelpful" and "antithetical to due process" to prematurely condemn errors in the judicial process as suggestive of bad faith or impropriety.

"Where there is reason to think that there might have been misconduct, steps will be taken in accordance with the applicable processes, and these must be allowed to take their course."

In his speech, the Chief Justice also detailed the judiciary's response to the pandemic and his views on the post-pandemic legal landscape.

"The pandemic has been a watershed in the partnership between justice and technology, and it is imperative that we ride this wave, re-imagine our processes and harness the power and potential of technology.

"The pace with which the courts and the profession successfully pivoted to remote hearings demonstrates that we can leverage technology to optimise our processes."