Lawyers are bound to be honourable in real or virtual environment: Chief Justice Menon

The first session of this year’s mass call event at the Supreme Court on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO
Chief Justice Menon was addressing more than 150 newly minted lawyers at the Supreme Court auditorium on Aug 23, 2022. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

SINGAPORE - Pointing to the online format of the 2020 Bar examinations to account for the 11 cases of cheating that year misses the real point, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said on Tuesday (Aug 23).

"The simple fact is that, as lawyers, we are absolutely bound to conduct ourselves honourably and honestly, regardless of whether we are operating in a real or a virtual environment, and regardless of whether anyone is looking over our shoulder," he said.

"This is because lawyers are required, first and foremost, to be persons of integrity."

Chief Justice Menon was addressing more than 150 newly minted lawyers at the first session of this year's mass call event to admit new lawyers.

More than 460 in total will be called to the Bar over three sessions on Tuesday and Wednesday.

It is the first time after two years of videoconferencing that the annual ceremony was conducted with applicants in attendance at the Supreme Court auditorium, with their families joining remotely.

Referring to the case of the 11 candidates who cheated in the Part B Bar exam in 2020, he said the virtual format may have made it easier for those who were open to cheating.

But there have been other examples of lawyers who were disciplined for the unacceptable way in which they used technology, such as by making contemptuous remarks online or engaging in sexual harassment using electronic devices.

In his speech, Chief Justice Menon reminded the new lawyers that they were expected to be women and men of honour.

Getting called to the Bar means being accorded certain privileges, including the right to appear in court on behalf of another person, but this comes with significant responsibilities, he said.

"This insistence upon the honourability of the legal profession is not only critical to the administration of justice, it is also central to public confidence in the machinery of justice and, ultimately, to the legitimacy of our legal system," said the Chief Justice.

He also highlighted recent cases of female lawyers being abused or molested by their male colleagues.

They include the case of Samuel Seow who was struck off in May for physically and verbally abusing three female employees, including a lawyer who was also his niece.

Chief Justice Menon noted that victims of such abuse have to face the prospect of having to pursue the matter through a formal process, which comes with the fear of being identified and stigmatised, and sometimes with the anxiety that their complaints may not be taken seriously.

"Be very clear; there is no place for this. If we cannot treat each other, regardless of gender, with respect and courtesy, then we cannot even begin to speak of acting honourably."

Integrity lies at the core of honour, he said.

While lawyers have heavy responsibilities to their clients, they are not "hired guns", and their highest duty is to assist the court in the administration of justice.

Lawyers also have an ethical duty to treat one another with dignity and respect.

In his speech, Chief Justice Menon reminded the new lawyers that they were expected to be women and men of honour. PHOTO: LIANHE ZAOBAO

"If your client's instructions drive you towards violating any of your legal and ethical duties, then in order to safeguard your integrity, you will have to discharge yourself from acting further," he said.

He urged the lawyers to strive for excellence by being adaptable and committing to lifelong learning.

He also strongly encouraged them to take the time to engage in pro bono work.

"Nobody expects lawyers to work for free all of the time... Nevertheless, the reality is that most lawyers occupy a privileged position compared with society at large. With that privilege comes the responsibility to ensure that all who need justice have access to it," he said.

Law Society president Adrian Tan also touched on honesty in his speech.

"We must be sincere, ethical and honourable in all respects. We tell the truth, we play fair, we never cheat. That is our brand, and we live it every day," he said.

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