Retiring Justice Chao Hick Tin on his memorable cases, philosophy, and immediate plans

Justice Chao Hick Tin will be retiring as Judge of Appeal on Sept 27, 2017.
Justice Chao Hick Tin will be retiring as Judge of Appeal on Sept 27, 2017.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Judge of Appeal Chao Hick Tin retires on Thursday (Sept 28) at age 75, after a 50-year career in the legal service.

Ministers, judges and lawyers paid tribute to his contributions and his judicial temperament at a valedictory reference on Wednesday.

In replies to media queries, Justice Chao revealed his philosophy on the bench, his immediate plans and his hopes for Singapore's legal landscape, among others.

Significant cases

Any recall of significant cases which I have handled would be quite random.

Two cases come to mind, not because of the legal issues which they raised, but because of the length of the trial and the animosity between the parties.

One was a dispute between a daughter-in-law and a mother-in-law which came before me in 1995 and 1996. The daughter-in-law appeared in person.

The dispute centred on the effect of certain documents signed by the son which concerned the estate of the father-in-law.

The other case was a divorce of a celebrity couple and the related ancillary matters.

More recently, the case of Public Prosecutor v Kho Jabing... raised the important question as to the test to be applied in determining whether a person convicted of murder under (Section) 300 of the Penal Code - other than intentional killing under s 300(a) - should suffer the penalty of death or that of life imprisonment and caning.

The five-judge court which heard this case deliberated on its decision for a long time, and in the end, decided by a majority of 3:2 that the death sentence should be imposed because the accused had attacked the victim in a savage and brutal manner which displayed a blatant disregard for human life.

Philosophy on the Bench

As I see it, the task of the judge is to hear the parties and decide the matter fairly and impartially, having regard to the evidence before the court and the applicable law.

I feel that the court, especially a trial court, ought to give the parties adequate time to establish their respective cases.

This is not to say that the court should always indulge a party's pointless pursuit of a particular line of questioning or a particular legal point. The court must always seek to strike a balance, bearing in mind time and resource constraints.

Wish for Singapore's legal landscape

My hope is that Singapore will become the go-to legal services hub in this region, and that the Singapore International Commercial Court will establish itself firmly as a global court for the settlement of trans-national commercial disputes.

Changes in Singapore's legal landscape

Legal practice has become much more challenging in that clients now demand more from their lawyers, and the courts too have imposed stricter timelines and also expect submissions of a higher quality.

In the longer term, it will likely be harder to practise as a one-man firm or, perhaps, even as a small firm. Legal practice has become international, and so must our law firms.

Plans post-retirement

This is a question which I have been asked time and again.

To my mind, if I had retired at 60 or 65, I would have made plans for post-retirement work. But at 75, I do not think I should be thinking of working as I have done all these years.

At this point, I would like to take things easy and spend time travelling as well as doing the things which I have always wanted to do but had to put off because of other commitments.

At the age of 75, one should not assume that one will still have many years ahead to travel and pursue one's interests. Life is unpredictable.

I do not think one should fear retirement. It is inevitable and comes with age. I have spent a good 50 years in the public service. I only hope that I have in some small way contributed to the development of our law and our legal system.

For me, my immediate plan is to travel - to explore places which I have never visited before. The world is large, and there is much out there for us to see and experience.

Final thoughts

If I were to start my working life all over again, I would not do anything differently. I have had an enriching and fulfilling 50 years in the public service, with many unique experiences along the way, such as being involved in the long-drawn negotiations (from 1974 to 1982) on the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.