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'Noticeable' rise in breaches of standards in legal profession: Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon

The number of disciplinary tribunals appointed from 2018 to 2021 to investigate complaints of lawyers' misconduct has increased. 

'Noticeable' rise in breaches of standards in legal profession: Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon

Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon and judges at the Opening of Legal Year 2023 held at the Supreme Court on Jan 9.

SINGAPORE: The new legal year opened on Monday (Jan 9) with Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon noting a "noticeable" increase in breaches of professional standards by lawyers over the past few years.

This was evidenced by the rising number of disciplinary tribunals appointed from 2018 to 2021, the Chief Justice said in his address at the Supreme Court auditorium. The annual event was held in-person for the first time in three years since the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A disciplinary tribunal is appointed by the Chief Justice to conduct a formal investigation into a complaint of misconduct against a lawyer. 

In his speech, which was centred on the theme of change, Chief Justice Menon also addressed changes to the legal industry, including its potentially diminishing attractiveness as a profession.

President of the Law Society of Singapore Adrian Tan also noted an "alarming reduction" in the number of junior lawyers among the society's ranks, and in the number of lawyers being called to the Bar. 

Opening the event, Attorney-General Lucien Wong spoke about the rule of law and its importance in society.

MORE DISCIPLINARY TRIBUNALS APPOINTED 

According to the Chief Justice, 12 disciplinary tribunals were appointed in 2018, 13 in 2019, 16 in 2020, 28 in 2021 and 25 last year.

Chief Justice Menon gave the figures while speaking at length about how there have been fewer opportunities for close mentorship between veterans and juniors in the profession due to the pandemic. 

"A diminution of close mentorship opportunities could have other serious and lasting ramifications, including a degradation in ethics and professional standards," said Chief Justice Menon.

"I do not attribute these trends to the shift to working remotely. My point is that a looming decline in ethical and professional standards is likely to be exacerbated if we do not actively apply ourselves to fostering the values that must characterise our profession, and a drop in standards cannot, and will not be tolerated. 

"We must therefore act together to guard against this."

The disciplinary tribunal cases show three trends: A drop in client care standards, poor professional standards, and a disregard for the court process, said Chief Justice Menon. 

In many cases where client care is lacking, lawyers have acted contrary to their clients' instructions, failed to keep their clients reasonably informed of proceedings, or have been "disloyal" to their clients' interests, he said. 

One such case involved Mr Ezekiel Peter Latimer, a lawyer of more than 20 years' standing who had concurrently represented both a foreign worker and his employer in the charges brought against each of them under the Employment of Foreign Manpower Act, placing himself in a position of conflict of interest. Mr Latimer was suspended from practice for three years in 2019. 

Poor professional standards have been shown in cases ranging from lawyers failing to comply with regulations for running a practice, to those who falsely attested to the execution of documents and those who deliberately breached a solicitor's undertaking. 

For example, lawyer Dhanwant Singh was fined S$50,000 in 2019 after he deposited funds paid by an interested buyer into his firm's clients' account rather than its conveyancing account, a breach of professional rules. 

A disregard for court process can also be seen through certain disciplinary tribunal cases, "most notably in the criminal justice sphere where counsel have sought repeatedly to reopen capital cases on spurious grounds at the eleventh hour," said Chief Justice Menon. 

One such case involves drug trafficker Syed Suhail Syed Zin, who was sentenced to death in 2015 for trafficking 38.84kg of heroin. His lawyer M Ravi, filed applications to reopen the case and was warned against raising arguments without reasonable basis and abusing the court process by a three-judge Court of Appeal in 2020. 

In response to the rise in cases, Chief Justice Menon said that a team will be put together to develop a strategy aimed at "re-establishing the moral centre and the values of our profession for existing practitioners". This team, to be spearheaded by Justice Valerie Thean and Senior Counsel Jimmy Yim, will also look at fostering such values at new entrants of the industry. 

"More broadly, I would also like the group to consider the impact of the changes arising from events of the last three years, from the perspective of our professional and ethical well-being," said the Chief Justice. 

Findings from the team will be delivered in due course, he added. 

PROFESSION LESS ATTRACTIVE TO YOUNGER LAWYERS

In his speech as president of the Law Society of Singapore, Mr Adrian Tan noted that membership had shrunk for the first time in five years after growing year-on-year from 2017 to 2021. 

Membership reached a high of 6,333 in 2021 before dropping by around 1 per cent to 6,273 last year. 

This decrease was "small" but its significance "large", said Mr Tan.

The drop came from junior lawyers in practice for fewer than five years, according to Mr Tan. Their numbers dipped by 7 per cent from 2,214 in August 2021 to 2,048 last August. 

"That alarming reduction should be viewed alongside another worrisome trend concerning the rate at which new lawyers are called to the Bar," said Mr Tan.

In August 2021, only 613 new lawyers were called to the Bar, a drop of more than a hundred from 2020. In 2022, the number of lawyers called to the Bar dwindled further to 597. 

"In short, after years of steady growth, we’ve had successive years where the number of incoming lawyers has declined. And last year saw the number dip below 600 for the first time in half a decade.

"To sum up, more young lawyers are leaving the profession, and fewer new lawyers are replacing them, such that the overall number of lawyers has dipped for the first time in half a decade," said Mr Tan, adding that the Law Society has commissioned a study to investigate the reasons behind the decline. 

He added: "Before the pandemic, lawyers would have had a period of orientation and adjustment. They would have worked shoulder-to-shoulder with their colleagues, accompanied their seniors at meetings and hearings, and celebrated or commiserated over midnight suppers. They would have fought in the trenches, met with victory and defeat, and seen how seasoned lawyers coped with the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.

"Because, after all, for young lawyers, training happens in the gaps and spaces between cases and tasks, where questions are asked and answered, tricks are learnt, jokes are told, and friendships are made, meaning is found in the work that we do." 

The cohorts of 2020 and 2021 lost these opportunities and only saw the convenience of working from home, Mr Tan said. 

New lawyers have missed the camaraderie and sense of unified purpose from working as a team, he added. 

"The truth is that, after the pandemic, young lawyers have tasted a new way of working ... with flexible hours. And they like it. Today, an increasing number of young lawyers expect law firms to support them if they prefer to work remotely."

While young people might want to experience jobs and gigs across different industries, such a mindset does not work for law, which requires sheer experience, long-term specialisation and maturity of judgement over time, said the Law Society president. 

In order to attract young lawyers, the legal industry needs to reshape itself, said Mr Tan.

Senior lawyers need to show juniors why they chose the profession while juniors should use their skills and knowledge to "make someone's life better". 

Chief Justice Menon agreed that the profession could be perceived as less attractive due to a lack of community and mentorship caused by a sense of isolation from remote working. 

Another factor might be salary, which was cited as a push factor by some who chose to leave the profession, he added. 

Lawyers have traditionally been well-compensated, although salaries are subject to market forces, the Chief Justice noted. These forces have recently put "considerable pressure" on salaries, with the Legal Service and the Judicial Service recently adjusting salaries and their compensation frameworks to narrow the gap, especially for younger officers, he added. 

"That said, we should also recognise that those who come to the law because they think it is a road to quick riches will likely find disappointment," said Chief Justice Menon.

"Law is a demanding vocation, it takes time, decades in fact, to achieve a high degree of competence. It is therefore best seen as a calling to be answered … rather than as a gig to be experienced ... simply stated money cannot be the reason to do what we do, in the spirit in which we are called to do it," he added.

In his speech, Mr Wong observed the role of the Rule of Law within governance. 

The Legal Service - comprising Legal Service Officers such as deputy public prosecutors - aims to help the Government achieve its policy agenda in accordance with the law.

"We cannot be excessively risk-averse and hinder what the electorate voted for," said Mr Wong. 

The Legal Service also does not give the impression that something is legally defensible when it is not, he added.

"If the Government’s policy objective is inconsistent with existing law, we advise that legislation must be amended or enacted in Parliament before the policy is implemented."

This was the case with Section 377A, which has since been repealed

"As the Prime Minister mentioned, I advised that Section 377A had a high risk of being struck down by the courts in the future. Proactive steps were taken to ensure that the law was repealed before this risk materialised," said Mr Wong. 

Source: CNA/wt(gr)

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