Lawyers told to stop behaving badly in court

Poor etiquette, dodgy ethical conduct among issues raised by judges, says Law Society

Poor etiquette, questionable ethical conduct and bad behaviour are becoming evident in Singapore's courtrooms. Not from defendants in the dock, but lawyers, The Law Society has claimed.

Its president, Senior Counsel Thio Shen Yi has urged the profession to guard against falling standards and said there has been "discontent of late" from the Bench about lawyers appearing before them. Among the examples cited: lawyers threatening to appeal their cases if a decision goes against them, implying that judges should rethink a decision, and one lawyer who persisted in making arguments after the hearing was over.

"Aggregated and anonymised feedback of poor behaviour has been systematically collected by both the State and High Courts, and shared with us," Mr Thio said in the Society's Law Gazette. "While it is anecdotal, far from endemic and not a scientific study, it still cannot be ignored or condoned. Not when we have aspirations to be world-class professionals."

He described one mediation session in which a lawyer told a judicial officer the opposite of what his client told him in Mandarin - which had been overheard by everyone in the chambers - as his client's statement adversely affected his case.

Another instance involved "forum shopping" - when a lawyer goes to see a duty registrar to mention the case in order to avoid the judicial officer specifically designated to hear the case.

The falling standards of ethical conduct have been the subject of "frank dialogue" by some judges and the Society's council over the past six months , Mr Thio said.

He made it clear there was no intention to sensationalise the issue, which had to be " confronted directly and candidly", adding that the actions of a few "do have an impact on the good name of the many, and on the profession as a body".

"Poor behaviour, if not dealt with and if seen to be tolerated, becomes more and more entrenched."

A study committee has been formed by the Singapore Academy of Law, with the Law Society's participation, to look into the issue.

Ideas being considered include direct training, creating awareness and remedial measures, to enable having a mechanism in place to intervene before a formal complaint is made. But even when a complaint is made, the existing sanctions could be "more nuanced" to provide for other options like mandatory counselling, said Mr Thio.

"Let's take a frank but constructive look at ourselves," he said. "It is our willingness to confront that which gives us discomfort, and learn from our shortcomings, that drives our progress."

Mr Thio also said that lawyers can sometimes feel provoked by the courts, such as by an uncalled-for remark from the Bench. He suggested setting up a hotline for lawyers to provide feedback to the Society so that its committees can discuss the issues with the courts.

Lawyer Amolat Singh said the issue is "topical and troubling" but he believed that appropriate training can increase lawyers' competence.

"We are fortunate that the Bench has been tolerant in handling these issues," he said, adding that Justice Steven Chong raised a similar concern at the Singapore Academy of Law ethics lecture earlier this year.

Association of Criminal Lawyers of Singapore president Sunil Sudheesan stressed that the issue is the "exception, not the rule" and called for "sufficient mechanisms" to be put in place to "curb the spread".

Correction: In an earlier version of this story, we reported that Law Society president Thio Shen Yi said “It is our willingness to confront that which gives us discomfort, and learn from our shortcomings, that drives out progress."
This is incorrect. The sentence should read “It is our willingness to confront that which gives us discomfort, and learn from our shortcomings, that drives our progress." We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on July 19, 2015, with the headline 'Lawyers told to stop behaving badly in court'. Print Edition | Subscribe