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Explainer: What is the Singapore Bar and how are errant lawyers disciplined?

A key rite of passage in the legal profession has been in the spotlight following news that 11 trainee lawyers cheated in the Bar exams.

Explainer: What is the Singapore Bar and how are errant lawyers disciplined?

File photo of a lawyer wearing robes. (Photo: iStock)

SINGAPORE: The recent news that 11 trainee lawyers cheated in the 2020 Bar exams has brought this rite of passage in the legal profession to wider attention.

Speaking in Parliament on Monday (May 9), Minister for Law K Shanmugam said lawyers owe a “very high duty” to the court.

“They have to act with the highest standards of probity, to ensure that they can be relied upon with utmost confidence,” he added.

The cases have prompted questions from some members of the public about what can be done to maintain ethical and professional standards among lawyers.

We look at the basics of what it takes to become a lawyer in Singapore, the conduct that is expected of them and what the consequences could be when those expectations are not met.

WHAT IS THE BAR?

In Singapore, the Bar refers to legal professionals who have satisfied all the requirements for legal education and vocational training to be admitted as advocates and solicitors of the Singapore Court.

Admission to the Bar gives lawyers the right and privilege to practice law in Singapore.

In the most general sense, this involves giving legal advice, drafting legal documents and representing clients in legal proceedings. “Non-lawyers are not allowed to do those types of work,” the Law Society told CNA.

Only those who have been admitted to the Bar and hold a valid practising certificate can take up private practice in a law firm. Other Bar members can also choose to work in the public sector, such as the Attorney-General’s Chambers, ministries or statutory boards.

New lawyers are usually called to the Bar every month. Once a year, the Chief Justice presides over a “mass call”, typically held in August.

Every lawyer with a valid practising certificate then automatically becomes a member of the Law Society. There were 6,333 legal practitioners in the country last year, according to the society’s website.

There are also some jobs in the legal profession that do not require admission to the Bar or a practising certificate, such as in-house counsel.

WHAT ACADEMIC QUALIFICATIONS ARE NEEDED FOR THE BAR?

Law students who want to be admitted to the Bar must have graduated with a law degree from the National University of Singapore, Singapore Management University or Singapore University of Social Sciences.

Those who have graduated from approved overseas universities can also be called to the Bar. Currently, these schools are only located in the United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand and the United States.

All prospective lawyers must pass a set of Bar exams, known as Part B, to qualify. These are the exams in which the 11 trainee lawyers cheated.

Part B comprises a full-time six-month preparatory course conducted by the Singapore Institute of Legal Education.

Candidates are tested in seven compulsory subjects: Civil litigation, criminal litigation, insolvency, real estate, family law, ethics and professional responsibility, and professional skills, according to the website of the Singapore Institute of Legal Education (SILE).

Law graduates of approved overseas universities must also take a set of “conversion” exams, known as Part A. This comprises five papers in company law, criminal law, evidence law, land law and the Singapore legal system, according to SILE’s website.

In 2018, the Ministry of Law said it would “raise the standard and stringency” of Part B in line with the recommendations of the Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers.

“This is necessary to maintain the high standards of the Bar and ensure that new lawyers are equipped to meet the challenges of the modern professional environment,” it said at the time.

WHAT ELSE MUST LAWYERS DO TO QUALIFY FOR THE BAR?

Admission to the Bar requires the applicant to prove that they are a “fit and proper” person to be admitted, said the Law Society.

A Bar applicant must be at least 21 years old and “of good character”, according to the Legal Profession Act. Currently, they must also complete practice training with a law firm for a period of six months.

From 2023, MinLaw is expected to uncouple admission to the Bar from practice training, allowing law graduates who meet the other requirements to be admitted without practice training.

“The proposed change recognises that a legal education can lead to different career pathways, and allows law graduates greater flexibility and choice,” the ministry said in 2018.

Those who wish to practise law will still need to complete practice training before they can obtain a practising certificate. The period of practice training will be increased to one year from 2023.

In addition to these, the Attorney-General, Law Society and SILE must not object to a Bar application in order for the applicant to be admitted.

This was where six of the trainee lawyers who cheated stumbled, even though they have since retaken and passed the Bar exams.

HOW ARE LAWYERS DISCIPLINED?

The Law Society looks into all complaints against lawyers that it receives, as provided for under the Legal Profession Act.

Singapore lawyers in private practice and foreign lawyers registered to practice foreign law or Singapore law here are subject to the society’s purview.

If a review committee finds that a complaint of professional misconduct is “frivolous, vexatious or without substance”, it will direct the Council of the Law Society to dismiss the complaint, according to the society.

Otherwise, it will refer the complaint to the chairman of an inquiry panel that will appoint an inquiry committee to look into it.

The inquiry committee can recommend that the lawyer pay a penalty of up to S$10,000, be reprimanded or be given a warning if it finds that there was misconduct.

If it finds a serious issue to be investigated, the committee can also refer the complaint for formal investigation by a disciplinary tribunal. This tribunal is appointed by the Chief Justice and presided over by a retired judge or senior counsel.

Disciplinary tribunal proceedings are “quasi-criminal” in nature, and the charges against the lawyer must be proven beyond reasonable doubt, similar to criminal proceedings, said the Law Society.

The disciplinary tribunal can recommend that the lawyer pay a penalty of up to S$20,000, be reprimanded or comply with remedial measures, or refer the matter to the Court of Three Judges.

The Court of Three Judges has the power to strike the lawyer off the roll of advocates and solicitors, suspend them from practice for up to five years, order a penalty of up to S$100,000 and censure them.

Some lawyers who have faced the Court of Three Judges include Mrs Lee Suet Fern, who was found guilty of misconduct in handling the last will of founding prime minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew, as well as Mr Samuel Seow, who was charged with physically and verbally abusing his employees.

Lawyers who defy court orders can also face criminal prosecution. For instance, the State Courts Act provides for gag orders to be placed on witnesses, and lawyers can be jailed and fined if they breach such orders.

HOW ARE TRAINEE LAWYERS DISCIPLINED?

There is no disciplinary process for a trainee lawyer who commits misconduct before admission to Bar, save for the discretion of the High Court to refuse to admit the applicant.

This is according to Justice Choo Han Teck, who presided over the admissions hearing of the six lawyers who cheated.

Ultimately, the judge adjourned the admissions hearings of the six trainee lawyers for six months to a year.

This was a proposal made by the Attorney-General. It was not intended as a punishment, but “a little more stretching of time for the applicants to reflect on the error of their ways”, said Justice Choo.

Source: CNA/dv(gs)

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