Framework for Attorney-General to intervene in cases based on role as 'guardian of the public interest': Shanmugam
SINGAPORE: Amendments to the law to create a statutory framework for the Attorney-General's right to intervene in court proceedings are aimed at "lending certainty" and are based on the position's established role as "guardian of the public interest", said Law Minister K Shanmugam.
This will allow "parties to proceed expeditiously to the substantive issues of the case", he said in Parliament on Tuesday (Sep 14).
"The addition of the (Attorney-General) to the proceedings is a procedural step. It does not mean that either of the original parties has somehow lost or won the original lawsuit," he added.
Mr Shanmugam was responding to questions from various Members of Parliament during the debate on the Courts (Civil and Criminal Justice) Reform Bill.
The Bill was passed on Tuesday after a debate on Monday and Tuesday.
It represents the "latest instalment of our continual efforts to improve" the justice system, said Second Minister for Law Edwin Tong on Monday during the second reading of the Bill.
The Bill will also make hearings conducted using video-link - currently allowed under the COVID-19 (Temporary Measures) Act - a permanent feature, and allow for witnesses to give evidence via video-link, even if not in Singapore.
It would also allow for lawyers to update the court as to the number and availability of witnesses online, and modernise court terminology, updating terms such as “writ of summons” to “originating claim” and renaming “subpoena” to “order to attend court”.
Among those raising concerns was Leader of the Opposition MP Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied), who noted the changes would allow the Attorney-General to intervene in civil proceedings as well.
Mr Singh pointed out there already exists a process under common law that allows for the Attorney-General to apply to intervene, and for the courts to consider the merits of the Attorney-General's application.
He asked why the current procedure, practised in other countries with common law such as Australia and Canada, had to be changed, and if the Government was preparing for possible scenarios under which the changes would be needed.
Responding to the Workers' Party chief, Mr Shanmugam pointed to an incident in which the Attorney-General had applied to intervene in a case where a private company had applied to have Inland Revenue Authority of Singapore (IRAS) documents disclosed to it.
“Whether it should be allowed or it should not be allowed is a matter for the court. Whether such a principle should apply to all public departments in the context of a private civil dispute, albeit against IRAS, is a matter of public interest,” said Mr Shanmugam.
"And the Attorney-General should be entitled to put forward his position, why it is or it is not in the public interest to make a particular order, and then it's for the courts to decide."
However, the company resisted the application by the Attorney-General to intervene in proceedings, and this dispute was only resolved by the Court of Appeal about 20 months later, he said.
Parties to a civil litigation often seek to "interpret the rules in their own favour", said Mr Shanmugam.
“If they succeed, sometimes, it is a man in the street who will pay the bill ultimately, if it's against public interest,” he said.
The Attorney-General’s intervention in such cases aims to "protect the man in the street", he added.
MP Zhulkarnain Abdul Rahim (PAP-Chua Chu Kang) asked if the court could instead allow for the Attorney-General to make his submissions as an independent counsel.
Mr Shanmugam’s response was that while the role of an independent counsel is to address the court on specific issues of law, whereas the Attorney-General’s submissions on issues of public interest may go beyond specific issues of law.
Unlike an independent counsel, the Attorney-General is also considered a party to proceedings and will be able to make applications, file affidavits and have the right to appeal, he added.
NMP Shahira Abdullah asked who should bear the costs in cases where the parties choose not to appeal the court’s decision but the Attorney-General decides to do so.
This will be decided by the courts, Mr Shanmugam replied.