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Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair to be appointed High Court judge

SINGAPORE — Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair has been appointed as a High Court judge, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said on Monday (Sept 26) in a statement, which listed out several other new appointments.

Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair (left) has been appointed a High Court judge with effect from Jan 2, 2023 and Justice Ang Cheng Hock (right) has been appointed Deputy Attorney-General for a two-year term from Oct 1, 2022.

Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair (left) has been appointed a High Court judge with effect from Jan 2, 2023 and Justice Ang Cheng Hock (right) has been appointed Deputy Attorney-General for a two-year term from Oct 1, 2022.

  • Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair will be appointed a High Court judge starting Jan 2, 2023
  • Previously an MP with PAP, he had quit politics before the 2015 General Election
  • Law experts told TODAY that any concerns about potential conflict of interest given Mr Nair's past and current roles should not be over-stated because there are safeguards in place
  • They added that there have been precedents of similar appointments
  • Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon is satisfied that Mr Nair will be able to discharge his duties as a judge, a Supreme Court spokesperson said

SINGAPORE — Deputy Attorney-General Hri Kumar Nair will assume the role of High Court judge on Jan 2, the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) said on Monday (Sept 26) in a statement, which listed out several other new appointments. 

Mr Nair has been Deputy Attorney-General since March 1, 2017 and has more than 25 years of experience as a litigator. 

A former Member of Parliament with the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) serving the Bishan-Toa Payoh Group Representation Constituency, Mr Nair quit politics before the 2015 General Election, following his wife's cancer diagnosis. 

He had by then served two terms between 2006 and 2015.  

Law experts interviewed by TODAY said that while some members of the public may raise questions about potential conflict of interest given Mr Nair's past and current roles, such concerns should not be over-stated because there are safeguards in place.

They added that there have been precedents of similar appointments.

On Monday, the PMO also announced that Justice Ang Cheng Hock will be appointed as Deputy Attorney-General for a two-year term from Oct 1.

Justice Ang has been a High Court judge since Aug 1, 2019. 

The PMO also announced the other appointments and reappointments in their statement: 

    APPOINTMENTS

    • Justice Belinda Ang Saw Ean has been appointed a Justice of the Court of Appeal from Nov 1 to April 23, 2024
    • Justice Kannan Ramesh and Justice Debbie Ong Siew Ling have also been appointed as Judges of the Appellate Division from Nov 1
    • Justice Thomas Frederick Bathurst (Australia) has been appointed as an International Judge to the Singapore International Commercial Court. His appointment is for the period from Oct 1 till Jan 4, 2024
    • Justice Andrew Phang Boon Leong and Justice Quentin Loh Sze-On have been appointed as Senior Judges of the Supreme Court for the period from Jan 2 next year to Jan 4, 2024

    REAPPOINTMENTS

    • Incumbent Attorney-General Lucien Wong, who has been in the role since 2017, has been re-appointed for a further term of three years, from Jan 14, 2023 to Jan 13, 2026
    • Mr Lionel Yee will be re-appointed as Deputy Attorney-General for a further three years, from Jan 14, 2023 to Jan 13, 2026. Mr Yee has been Deputy Attorney-General since 2017

    The PMO said that with these appointments, the Supreme Court will have a total of 27 judges (including the chief justice and four justices of the Court of Appeal), two judicial commissioners, five senior judges and 19 international judges.

    'LEGAL SAFEGUARDS IN PLACE'

    Law experts who spoke to TODAY said that there are safeguards against any potential conflict of interest that may stem from either Mr Nair's status as an ex-PAP MP or his current appointment as a Deputy Attorney-General.

    Associate Professor Eugene Tan from the Yong Pung How School of Law at Singapore Management University (SMU) said: “There are clear rules and accepted norms on when a judge should recuse herself from hearing a case.” 

    Law academic Kevin Tan pointed out that there were previous examples of Attorney-Generals who went on to be appointed as judges or chief justice, who recused themselves from cases involving the Attorney-General's Chambers during their tenure there, even though they might not have handled those cases personally.

    The adjunct law professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS) added: “As a matter of good prudent practice, this is what has been done and I don't see it being different insofar as Hri Kumar (Nair) is concerned.” 

    On Mr Nair's previous ties with the PAP, Assoc Prof Tan of SMU said: “The concerns are legitimate to the lay persons but should not be overstated. Mr Nair is no longer a PAP member and will take the required oaths of office.

    “Without evidence to the contrary, it would be improper to suggest that Mr Nair would be partial given his previous political affiliation.” 

    Similar questions of potential conflict of interest were raised in Parliament in 2017, when Mr Nair was first appointed as the Deputy Attorney-General, and Mr Lucien Wong, who had previously acted as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s lawyer in relation to the Lee family's tussle over their Oxley Road house, was appointed Attorney-General. 

    Mr Lee had told Parliament back then in addressing the concerns: “The way to deal with this is also quite standard — for the lawyers to recuse themselves when matters come up which they had previously dealt with in a previous capacity… All professional lawyers know how to handle such matters.” 

    Dr Tan of NUS said that a party arguing for a judge's recusal “bears the burden of proof” to show that there is a reasonable likelihood that a judge could be biased.

    In general, Dr Tan said that it would be prudent for Mr Nair to recuse himself from any cases that may relate to the Government or the PAP in the future, saying “it's a matter of rectitude”.

    “In keeping with the dictum that justice should not only be done, but should be seen to be done, it would be better to recuse himself,” Dr Tan added.

    Mr Benjamin Joshua Ong, an assistant professor of law at SMU, noted that judges are duty-bound to perform their judicial duties according to law, and not according to their personal beliefs.

    He added that in judicial review cases involving the Government, there is a right of appeal to the Court of Appeal.

    “It is not that a single High Court judge has the last word,” he said.

    'ACTED WITH INDEPENDENCE AND INTEGRITY'

    Responding to queries from TODAY, the Supreme Court said that the courts have a process which requires a judge to recuse himself from hearing any case, should he be of the view that there is a conflict of interest.

    Its spokesperson added that parties in a matter before the courts can apply for the presiding judge to be recused, due to an actual or perceived conflict of interest.

    "The role of the judiciary is to ensure that all that come before it will receive a fair and impartial hearing," said the spokesperson.

    As for Mr Nair, the Supreme Court noted that he has been discharging his duties as Deputy Attorney-General since March 2017.

    "In this capacity, he has had to act with independence and integrity," said the spokesperson.

    “The Chief Justice (Sundaresh Menon) is satisfied that Mr Nair will be able to discharge his duties as a judge in accordance with the judicial oath of office that he will be required to take in due course," he added. ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY TAUFIQ ZALIZAN, LOH SI YUAN

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