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Public should not rush to suggest ‘bad faith’ or ‘impropriety’ when judges make errors: Chief Justice

SINGAPORE — While judges may sometimes make missteps, members of the public should not rush to judgment and condemn errors in the judicial process as suggestive of bad faith or impropriety, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said on Monday (Jan 11).

Public should not rush to suggest ‘bad faith’ or ‘impropriety’ when judges make errors: Chief Justice

Attorney-General Lucien Wong (left) and Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon chat before the Opening of Legal Year 2021 ceremony at the State Courts on Monday (Jan 11).

  • Society’s regard for and trust in the courts is “extremely precious”, said Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon
  • When missteps happen, premature criticism and imputations of bad faith are not only unhelpful but can be “antithetical to due process”, he said
  • They unfairly undermine public trust and confidence in the very institutions that are fundamental to the Rule of Law, he added
  • AGC will not allow the fear of failure or of public backlash to stand in the way of its duty, says Attorney-General Lucien Wong

 

SINGAPORE — While judges may sometimes make missteps, members of the public should not rush to judgment and condemn errors in the judicial process as suggestive of bad faith or impropriety, Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon said on Monday (Jan 11).

In a speech marking the opening of the legal year, the Chief Justice spoke publicly for the first time about the high-profile case of Ms Parti Liyani, the former maid of ex-Changi Airport Group chairman Liew Mun Leong, who was acquitted of stealing from Mr Liew and his family.

The case had drawn intense public scrutiny and led to a marathon debate session in Parliament in November about fairness in Singapore’s judicial system.

“We may harbour strong views about a given case, but when all is said and done, it goes without saying that we must respect the final judicial outcome because, whether or not one agrees with a decision, the process that culminates in it affords us the best means we have for resolving our differences in a way that is fair, honest and conduces to orderly relations,” CJ Menon said.

He added that the regard for and trust in the courts that the Government, the Law Society and the vast majority of Singaporeans have is something that is “extremely precious” and helps society function well even if people differ on specific issues.

“Where there is reason to think that there might have been misconduct, steps will be taken in accordance with the applicable processes, and these must be allowed to take their course,” CJ Menon said.

“Premature criticism and imputations of bad faith are not only unhelpful but can be antithetical to due process. They unfairly undermine public trust and confidence in the very institutions that are fundamental to the rule of law.”

THE ROLE OF APPEALS

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam had said in a ministerial statement in Parliament in November that Ms Parti’s former employer Mr Liew had not influenced the case, although he was a "wealthy, powerful person".

"All are equal before the law. It doesn’t matter who the parties are. Justice, according to the facts, and the law as the courts see it,” he had said.

Citing Mr Shanmugam’s remarks, CJ Menon said Ms Parti’s case was indeed a “classic illustration” of how the rule of law operates here, with Justice Chan Seng Onn scrutinising the case’s evidence, arguments and trial court judgement during the appeal process.

CJ Menon said: “Judges are not infallible. That is precisely why virtually all judicial structures in the world incorporate a system of corrective procedures such as appeals, so that where something might have gone amiss at first instance, there is the opportunity to set it right.”

Nevertheless, he added that the courts must constantly look beyond the fact that corrective court procedures are working well. 

Thus, the courts have been working on enhancing the training and development programmes for judges and judicial officers in recent years, including increasing the opportunities for High Court judges to mentor judicial officers in the State and Family Justice Courts. 

He has also established a cross-court knowledge management office, overseen by Justice See Kee Oon, that will facilitate the sharing of knowledge and best practices across the judiciary.

NUMBER OF CONVICTIONS NOT PROSECUTION’S REAL MEASURE, SAYS AG

Speaking at the same event, Attorney-General Lucien Wong said that in response to lessons gleaned from Ms Parti’s case, the prosecution is working with the police on internal guidelines for recording investigative statements properly and obtaining proper valuations of items, which are the subject of property offences.

The Attorney-General Chambers (AGC) will also reinforce its efforts to demystify the inner workings of the prosecution and make the criminal legal system more accessible and intelligible to the public, he noted.

But moving forward, he stressed that the AGC will not allow the fear of failure or of public backlash to stand in the way of its duty, stating that its real measure does not lie in the number of convictions secured, but in prosecuting worthy cases fairly and upholding the public interest. 

“Neither acquittals nor baseless lawsuits or actions commenced against my chambers or my prosecutors will deter us from fulfilling our mission to prosecute in the public interest,” he said.

Mr Wong also said that not every acquittal is a sign that its prosecutors have failed in their duty.

Among other things, they show that “AGC does not only pursue cases which are easy wins, but also cases where we truly believe that an offence has been committed and must be addressed”, he said.

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law legal judiciary court chief justice

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