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'Character first, then competence': Lawyers must act honourably and honestly, says Chief Justice

SINGAPORE — Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said at the Mass Call on Tuesday (Aug 23) that lawyers must conduct themselves honourably and honestly, whether in real or virtual environments.

New lawyers take their oaths at the Mass Call on Aug 23, 2022.

New lawyers take their oaths at the Mass Call on Aug 23, 2022.

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SINGAPORE — Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said at the Mass Call on Tuesday (Aug 23) that lawyers must conduct themselves honourably and honestly, whether in real or virtual environments.

More than 400 new lawyers are being called to the Bar in hearings on Tuesday and Wednesday, in a hybrid format combining physical and virtual participation. This follows the past two years of virtual Mass Calls.

Addressing the new lawyers gathered in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Menon made reference to the 11 trainee lawyers who cheated in the 2020 Bar exams.

Seven of the trainee lawyers have since withdrawn their applications to join the legal profession. Chief Justice Menon will hear the cases of the remaining four on Friday.

He said the incident highlighted the dangers of using virtual platforms for activities that would usually be conducted in person. The 2020 Bar exams were held virtually due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But it was noteworthy that there were other examples of lawyers being disciplined for the "unacceptable" way in which they used technology, said the Chief Justice.

This included the case of a former lawyer at a top firm who was struck off the roll for taking intrusive photos of his colleague in the office.

"To account for the cheating incident by pointing to the way the examinations were conducted therefore misses the real point," said the Chief Justice.

"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."

The Chief Justice said this was because "lawyers are required, first and foremost, to be persons of integrity".

"Admission to the Bar is about character first, and then about competence," he said, adding that these are necessary conditions for admission.


Describing the legal profession as an honourable one, the Chief Justice said being called to the Bar meant being accorded certain privileges, like the right to address the court, that came with significant responsibilities.

"Because of the gravity of these responsibilities, they are entrusted only to those who are found capable of discharging them properly and honourably," 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.

"If any of the institutions of the justice system are even perceived to be morally weak or corrupt, that strikes directly at the heart of public respect for the rule of law."

Lawyers should strive to set the right example by modelling honourable behaviour so that faith in the moral standards of the profession can be maintained, he said.

He added that the duty of honesty "applies not only when convenient, but also, and perhaps especially, when it is inconvenient and uncomfortable".

"Honesty may also require you to make disclosure of your own errors, instead of waiting for someone else to discover it or hoping that no one will," he said.

Turning to gender equality in the profession, Chief Justice Menon also highlighted recent cases of female lawyers being abused or molested by male colleagues.

This included former entertainment lawyer Samuel Seow, who was struck off the roll for physically and verbally abusing three female employees in 2018. Seow also faces criminal charges.

"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," said the Chief Justice.

He called for constant improvement in honing the three core attributes of honour — integrity, excellence and service — and said that this required lifelong reflection and hard work.

"But it is work worth doing because in the final analysis, the real hallmark of a lawyer is that commitment to honour," he said.

"This is not only a prerequisite for your admission to the Bar, but it is a commitment that you make that must last throughout your career in the legal profession." CNA

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