Sunday, December 9, 2007

THE Law Ministry unveiled proposed new changes

THE Law Ministry unveiled proposed new changes yesterday meant to speed up disciplinary hearings for errant lawyers - a process that often drags on for 15 months.

The move is among a raft of measures aimed to bolster public confidence in the legal profession, the Law Ministry said in a press release yesterday.

‘Such confidence requires a sound disciplinary system for errant lawyers,’ it said in the wake of a report from the Committee to Develop the Singapore Legal System, which recommended the changes.

The changes would see a single person - who would either be a retired judge, ex-judicial commissioner or Senior Counsel - probe cases brought against lawyers accused of violating professional codes of conduct. The system would replace a four-member committee which, because of scheduling problems, bogged down the disciplinary process, according to the committee chaired by Justice V.K. Rajah.

The average time to complete hearings has doubled from 7.5 months in 2002 to 15.4 months last year.

But the Law Society, which represents Singapore’s lawyers, expressed concern over the change.

‘In most jurisdictions, a lawyer is judged by a panel made up by three of his peers,’ it said in a media release. ‘The society is of the view that… it should continue to have three legally qualified persons.’

The proposed new rules come as more lawyers find themselves on the wrong side of the law.

Complaints against lawyers resulted in 28 probes completed last year, more than twice the number from a year earlier. One of the probes involved two lawyers.

Six lawyers were acquitted, nine were reprimanded or fined by their peers and 14 referred to a Court of Three Judges - the highest level of disciplinary action.

Complaints against lawyers covered a range of issues - from offering a commission for a real-estate case to making a false declaration.

Chief Justice Chan Sek Keong said in January there was a pressing need to revise the disciplinary system.

As it stands, errant lawyers are probed by a disciplinary committee comprising two lawyers, a representative from the Attorney-General’s Office and one lay person, who are appointed by the Chief Justice.

The committee can either refer the accused lawyer to the Court of Three Judges - if the matter is serious - or recommend a fine or reprimand by the Law Society.

But the four-member composition often made it difficult to schedule early hearings.

The report released yesterday acknowledged reservations to the streamlined process. But it should help many innocent lawyers who often have to wait months to see their cases decided, it said.

‘A not inconsiderable number of lawyers are acquitted of any misconduct at the disciplinary committee stage.

‘For them, justice is denied when hearings are unreasonably delayed,’ said the report.

Under the new rules, the penalties against errant lawyers will also be increased.

The Law Society may impose fines of up to $20,000 in less serious cases. The Court of Three Judges will also be empowered to fine lawyers up to $100,000, in addition to suspending their licences or striking them off.

‘The Government views these recommendations as positive moves,’ said the Law Ministry.

Source : Straits Times - 7 Dec 2007

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