Parliament approves separation of judicial and legal services

The move to restructure Singapore's legal service came after six decades under an "integrated" system.
The move to restructure Singapore's legal service came after six decades under an "integrated" system.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The judicial and legal services in Singapore will be split to allow for greater specialisation and prepare for future challenges, after Parliament on Wednesday (Nov 3) approved the creation of the Judicial Service Commission (JSC).

The move to restructure Singapore's legal service came after six decades under an "integrated" system where a single Legal Service Commission (LSC) oversaw officers deployed to both the judicial and legal branches.

The JSC will oversee judicial officers such as State Courts judges and assistant registrars in the Supreme Court.

The LSC will be reconstituted to oversee legal service officers such as prosecutors, law drafters and government legal advisers.

In his speech on why the change is being made now, Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong said: "The shift to a specialist model is not so much to address the problems of today, but really a matter of forward planning, preparing for the challenges of the future."

He said the Government could take a wait-and-see approach and maintain the current system while making smaller tweaks, given how the integrated model has worked well for Singapore.

"Or we can make the move now, prepare ourselves for the future. We believe this will eventually make sense - to split the two services, when the legal service grows further."

Mr Tong said the fundamental structure of the Legal Service, which was established via the 1959 Constitution, had remained unchanged for many decades.

In 2007, changes were made to create a more systematic talent management system.

Steps were then taken in 2014 to increase specialisation, in response to the increasing scope and complexity of legal work.

The changes that year saw separate judicial and legal career tracks set up for officers in the middle ranks, while personnel boards were restructured, with one for each branch.

"The enduring challenge has been our very small pool of talent, due to our small size. This has been the raison d'etre for keeping with an integrated model," noted Mr Tong.

He said the legal service has played a key role in building Singapore's reputation for commitment to the rule of law and lauded its contributions, such as drafting laws that were urgently required for measures to mitigate the impact of the pandemic.

Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong said the legal service has played a key role in building Singapore's reputation for commitment to the rule of law. PHOTO: GOV.SG

Over the years, there had been many calls to separate the two branches.

In July this year, Mr Murali Pillai (Bukit Batok), with the support of other MPs, filed an adjournment motion in Parliament, asking the Government to study the feasibility of setting up a separate commission for judicial officers.

After further study and discussions with the Chief Justice and the Attorney-General, the Government decided to take the step.

The existing LSC is headed by the Chief Justice and comprises the Attorney-General, the chairman of the Public Service Commission (PSC), and other members.

With the split, the JSC will be led by the Chief Justice, while the LSC will be headed by the Attorney-General. The PSC chairman will be vice-president of both commissions.

The respective presidents of the commissions, PSC chairman and the prime minister may each nominate up to two members to the respective commissions.

Each commission will retain broad oversight over any personnel boards that are established.

Cross-service secondments will continue to be available on application, said Mr Tong.

MPs from both sides of the House spoke in support of the changes, raising questions and suggestions on secondments and transfers, talent attraction and diversification, and limits on reappointment.

Mr Lim Biow Chuan (Mountbatten), who had spoken in support of Mr Pillai's motion, said it was important for legal officers to still be allowed to ask for cross-service posting, to deepen their knowledge.

"I also submit that all our judicial officers must have some wide exposure to community work and more depth of experience in life before being appointed as judicial officers," said Mr Lim.

Mr Vikram Nair (Sembawang GRC) asked if cross-postings would now be more difficult.

Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) asked whether there will be default career progression plans under each commission.

Mr Louis Ng (Nee Soon GRC) said it was important for the judicial service to be staffed by officers from a diversity of backgrounds beyond the legal service.

"Recruiting talent from diverse backgrounds will help with responding to increasingly complex and specialised cases before the courts and also for maintaining trust in the judiciary's independence."

Mr Ng also questioned if there were limits on the reappointment of any member to the LSC and JSC.

Mr Tong said it was not feasible to impose limits on reappointment, given Singapore's small talent pool.

"Whilst we understand Mr Ng's concerns about leadership renewal and organisational change, we must also, at the same time, be realistic about the pool of candidates that are suitable and also willing to serve on these commissions," he said.

Mr Tong said plans going forward are matters for the new commissions when they are constituted.

"With the restructuring, the two commissions will have the flexibility to also develop their own unique value proposition in terms of breadth of exposure for the officers, talent development, opportunities for career progression, recruitment and so on," he added.