Principle of open justice applies, says Chief Justice in rejecting Bar exam cheat's bid to redact name

Mr Leon Tay Quan Li was one of the 11 aspiring lawyers caught cheating in Part B of the Bar examination. PHOTO ILLUSTRATION: PEXELS

SINGAPORE - Granting a court order to seal and redact the name of an aspiring lawyer caught cheating in the 2020 Bar examination would have been a departure from the principle of open justice.

In written grounds issued on Monday (June 6), Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said admissions to the Bar are matters of public interest, given the role of the legal profession in upholding the justice system.

"Any derogation from the principle of open justice must be either grounded in statute or in the court's inherent powers to do what is necessary to serve the ends of justice," he added.

Mr Leon Tay Quan Li was one of 11 aspiring lawyers caught cheating in Part B of the Bar examination, which was held online in 2020 amid the Covid-19 pandemic.

On April 22 this year, he applied to the court to withdraw his Bar admission application.

The 26-year-old said he recognised that he had failed to display the requisite values of honesty and integrity.

The court granted the withdrawal application, which was heard in public, saying it was not disputed that Mr Tay was not a fit and proper person to be admitted to the Bar.

He later sought court orders to redact and seal the papers, asserting that there was no public interest in his identity, with his application withdrawn.

Mr Tay also referred to a medical memo prepared by psychiatrist Kua Ee Heok of the National University of Singapore, that disclosure of his name could trigger a severe psychiatric reaction.

In dismissing the application for a sealing order, which was heard in private, the Chief Justice said the court did not accept that the principle of open justice did not apply when Mr Tay withdrew his application to the Bar.

"The principle of open justice continued to apply in such circumstances.

"Moreover, it was evident that even the withdrawal application raised questions of public interest, which pertain to the character required of a candidate seeking to gain admission to the Bar," he added.

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As for Professor Kua's memo, the Chief Justice said it fell short of the threshold required to justify any departure from the principle of open justice.

"In a sparse memo that was not longer than half a page, Professor Kua asserted that the applicant suffered from symptoms of anxiety and depression, and that the publication of his name could trigger a severe depression," noted Chief Justice Menon.

He said that there was no reasoning or analysis to speak of in Prof Kua's memo, and added that the conclusions in the memo were at best tentative.

The Chief Justice said the memo was largely based on Mr Tay's self-reported symptoms such as not being able to sleep or concentrate - the severity of which had not been verified.

The court also rejected Mr Tay's request for a partial sealing order pertaining to his mental health issues, including Prof Kua's memo.

The Chief Justice said it was not tenable for Mr Tay to rely on Prof Kua's memo as a central pillar of his application for a sealing order, and having failed in that application, to seek its redaction.

Mr Tay was allowed to withdraw his application to be called to the Bar, in a hearing before the Chief Justice, after he agreed to two conditions set by the court.

He had to give an undertaking not to bring a fresh application for admission to the Bar in Singapore or in any other jurisdiction for at least five years.

He also had to give his word that, if and when he brings a fresh application, he would have to satisfy any requirement by the Attorney-General, Law Society, Singapore Institute of Legal Education (Sile) or the court as to his fitness for admission.

Mr Tay was found to have colluded with another candidate, Ms Lynn Kuek Yi Ting, in the Bar exam.

Chief Justice Menon said Mr Tay was asked to meet the dean of Sile, which conducts the Bar exam, on Feb 15 last year to explain the similarities between his answer scripts and those of Ms Kuek.

Mr Tay said they had spent a significant amount of time studying and preparing notes together, which they intended to use as prepared answers during the Bar exam.

He was then told to submit his study notes to Sile.

It found that many of the PDF files he sent in were dated Feb 15 last year, which was after the exam.

Sile questioned whether those were the documents Mr Tay had referred to, and asked him to submit the actual files.

He complied, and from the subsequent examination of those files, he was found to have cheated in three of the six papers.

The Chief Justice had inquired in the hearing about the certificates of good conduct that were provided by the solicitor who supervised Mr Tay's training at a law firm.

It was then revealed that the aspiring lawyer had not disclosed the cheating incident to his supervising solicitor.

Mr Tay issued an apology last month, saying he was aware that his actions were "truly reprehensible" and represented a severe lapse in judgment on his part.

In the decision grounds, the Chief Justice said if Mr Tay continues to aspire to be called to the Bar, he should approach stakeholders for guidance as to the "measures he could take that they would regard as appropriate to aid in his rehabilitation".

Chief Justice Menon also noted that the case concerned a situation that was not nearly covered by existing legislation, adding that reform may be needed in the future.

He said if issues arise that question the suitability of an applicant, even after he meets technical requirements for competency, the court should consider alternatives to dismissing the application.

The Chief Justice said the court could either adjourn the matter or allow the application to be withdrawn on terms that would satisfy the court and relevant stakeholders that the applicant is a fit and proper person for admission.

"This is ultimately a question of principle and not one of sympathy; it is rooted in the consideration that those admitted to the Bar are persons who are not only qualified and competent but also of suitable character," he added.

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