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Unpacking Singapore's System of Government: The Judiciary


Image: Credits to TODAY (TODAY File Photo)

In this Explainer, find out...

  • What are the roles and responsibilities of Singapore's Judiciary?

  • Who or what makes up the Judiciary?

  • What are the legal principles that make the Judiciary work?


Introduction

The law governs and pervades many aspects of our lives. While the Legislature makes the law, the branch of Singapore’s system of government that interprets and enforces the law is the Judiciary. The Judiciary is always resolving the conflicts that arise in interpreting the law. With such prevalence in the lives of Singaporeans, it would be important to understand how our Judiciary functions.


The Singapore Judiciary is composed of different levels of Courts with different people serving different functions. So who are these people, and what underlying principles guide the Courts of Singapore? This Policy Explainer is the fifth of MAJU’s six-part series on Singapore’s System of Government and seeks to demystify the structures of the Singapore Judiciary.


Roles and Responsibilities of the Judiciary

Statutory law by Parliament remains vague and requires people to interpret them. The Judiciary’s role is thus to take the laws set out by the Legislature and to ultimately determine how a law should be interpreted and hence applied.


To ensure the legal system actually promotes justice, the Judiciary has commitments both to ensure the legal process is fair, and to actively develop the law to be applied in real-life situations.


Firstly, the Judiciary needs to ensure that all laws are applied fairly to everyone. Just because someone is a powerful figure does not mean that the law will favour them. This means that it is the Court’s duty to ensure there will not be any unfair advantage provided to any one group either because of factors that are irrelevant to the case.¹


Secondly, the Judiciary needs to interpret and further develop the law. Laws are not that specific enough to take into account all possible factors that influence certain determination. Hence, there is always some interpretation that needs to happen, which will further develop the law.²


These commitments will be discussed in detail in a later section on ‘Legal Principles’.


Types of Law

There are three branches of law that serve different functions: Criminal Law, Civil Law, and Family Law.


Criminal Law: Laws that aim to protect the general public by prohibiting certain actions. In Criminal cases, the Public Prosecutor, on behalf of the State (Singapore) is the entity that takes the accused to court. Examples of Criminal Cases would include homicide, traffic offences, or drug offences.³


Civil Law: Laws that aim to protect the rights of individuals or legal entities such as companies. In Civil Law cases, individuals or legal entities take other individuals or legal entities to court to settle disputes pertaining to civil rights. Examples of Civil Cases would include defamation, negligence, or breach of contract.⁴


Family Law: Laws that deal with legal issues within the family, where individuals may take other individuals to court over disputes. Examples of Family Cases would include divorce, wills or adoption.⁵


Structure of the Judiciary


Court Structures

The Judiciary is a complex system, only because there are so many laws with many factors to consider, and nuances that need to be picked out to decide how justice can be carried out. With all these different types of cases, there are different courts of law that have been set up to deal with these different cases. These are namely the State Courts, Supreme Court, and the Family Justice Courts.⁶


For ease of categorisation, Civil and Criminal Cases have been split into “Smallest, Small, Medium, and Large” in this Policy Explainer. These cases are grouped vary based on the quantum being claimed (for Civil Cases) or the severity (for Criminal Cases), and depending on the group they belong to, they will be dealt with by different courts.


State Courts

The State Courts deal with the “Smallest” to “Medium” Criminal and Civil Cases, and comprises many individual courts for different functions such as the Small Claims Tribunal, Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal, and the Employments Claim Tribunal.⁷


For the “Smallest” Civil Cases where the Civil claims are < S$20,000 in value, the nature of the claims determines the court or tribunal they fall under:

  • Small Claims Tribunal: Claims relating to contracts, unfair practices, private actions, or residential leases.

  • Community Disputes Resolution Tribunal: Claims relating to disputes between neighbours.

  • Employment Claims Tribunal: Claims relating to disputes between employers and employees.


“Small” and “Medium” Criminal and Civil Cases are typically referred to the Magistrates' and District Courts respectively.

  • Magistrates’ Court: Deals with “Small” Criminal Cases (where maximum imprisonment does not exceed 5 years or is punishable with fine only) and “Small” Civil Cases (Where Civil Claims are above S$20,000 but do not exceed S$60,000).

  • District Court: Deals with “Medium” Criminal Cases (where maximum imprisonment does not exceed 10 years or is punishable with fine only) and “Medium” Civil Cases (Where Civil Claims are above S$60,000 but do not exceed S$250,000).

The Coroners’ Court is a special court under the State Court that deals with Criminal Cases of unnatural deaths where the cause of death is unknown.


Supreme Court

Split into the High Court and the Court of Appeal, these courts deal with “Large” Criminal and Civil Cases.


The High Court is split into 3 Divisions that serve specific functions.⁸

  • General Division: Deals with Criminal Cases where the maximum imprisonment term exceeds 10 years including life imprisonment, and the death penalty. These are charges that are not punishable with only a fine. Also deals with Civil Cases where the Civil Claim exceeds S$250,000.

  • Appellate Division: Deals with Civil Cases that do not fall under the Sixth Schedule of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969. This is a specific piece of legislation which states which Civil Appeals go between the Appellate Division of the High Court and the Court of Appeals.

  • Singapore International Commercial Court: Deals with International Commercial disputes.


The Court of Appeal is the highest court in Singapore and consists of a total of five permanent judges, comprising Singapore’s Chief Justice, and four Judges of Appeal. This is where appeals are made when individuals believe that the High Court has made an error in their judgement. Judgements made in the Court of Appeal can overrule decisions previously made by the High Court.⁹


Typically, the Court of Appeal hears cases with a bench of three judges. However, this number may be increased for cases of greater complexity or importance, so long as the total number of judges is not even. The cases that will be heard by the Court of Appeal are:

  • For Criminal Cases: All appeals against decisions made by the General Division of the High Court are brought here.

  • For Civil Cases: The Sixth Schedule of the Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969 determines which Civil appeals are brought here or are brought to the Appellate Division of the High Court.¹⁰


Family Justice Court

As the name implies, the Family Justice Court deals exclusively with Family Cases.¹¹

  • Youth Court: Deals with specific cases that are covered by the Children and Young Persons Act 1993.¹²

  • Family Court: Deals with the bulk of Family-related cases.

  • Family Division of the High Court: Deals with Family Cases where there are assets of S$5 million or more at stake or with appeals against decisions by the Youth or Family Court.


People of the Judiciary

Courts require the work of numerous individuals within the Judiciary system to function, requiring people to make judgements on the large variety of cases, ensure all procedures are followed, and to keep track of all cases and the associated paperwork.


Judges


There are six types of Judges (in descending rank):

  1. The Chief Justice;

  2. Judges of the Court of Appeal;

  3. Judges of the High Court;¹³

  4. Presiding Judge of the State Courts;

  5. District Judges;

  6. Magistrates.¹⁴


All judges are appointed by the President in concurrence with the advice of the Prime Minister.¹⁵


Judges preside over disputes in Court. They are able to make Court orders to compel parties to take certain actions or decide the liability and sentences (if applicable under Criminal Law) of parties.


Chief Justice

The Chief Justice is the “president” of the Court who presides over hearings at the apex court; the Court of Appeal.¹⁶ The Chief Justice also has the power to appoint Vice-Presidents of the Court of Appeal and recommend to the President the appointment for Registrars.¹⁷


Judicial Commissioner

Judicial Commissioners are Judges who are appointed on a non-permanent basis. In Singapore, Judicial Commissioners have the full power of a Judge and like Judges, are appointed by the President on advice of the Prime Minister.¹⁸


Registrar

The Registrar is the head of the Court’s registry, which manages the cases heard by the Court. The Registrar is also the Sheriff of the Supreme Court, responsible for the execution of writs and processes issued by the Court.¹⁹


The Registrar is assisted by Deputy Registrars, Senior Assistant Registrars, Assistant Registrars, Deputy Divisional Registrars and Divisional Registrars.²⁰


Reflecting their role to ensure smooth and expeditious resolution of court cases, Registrars work closely with Judges in teams to resolve cases. Registrars are empowered to exercise the authority and jurisdiction of a Judge sitting in chambers in the General Division of the High Court, to preside and issue judgement over cases and hear a trial.²¹


Legal Principles

Singapore’s legal system is undergirded by two legal principles, the Rule of Law and Common Law, that guide the creation, interpretation and application of the law of the land.


Rule of Law

The Rule of Law is an ideal that all should be equal before the law, including the government and law makers.²² It is widely recognised that one of the cornerstones of upholding the Rule of Law is judicial independence.²³


Judicial independence is anchored by the separation of powers between the legislature, the government and the judiciary.


For instance, the Judiciary can review the legality of a public body’s action through a process known as judicial review. If a public body’s action is found to be “illegal” (i.e., it is outside of their powers and rights), “unreasonable” or improperly decided, the public body will have no right to make such actions.²⁴


This allows the Judiciary to keep the government in check, subject to certain limitations. For example, the President or Minister for Home Affairs’ decision under the Internal Security Act 1960 can only be reviewed for procedural defects.²⁵


Hence, if the Judiciary is independent of the government, they will not favour the government unfairly.


Common Law System

Singapore’s Judiciary functions under a Common Law Legal System. This means that laws are developed by Court judgments as an extension or clarification of existing laws or legal principles.²⁶ This is known as “case law”. Case law from higher Courts sets binding precedents on lower Courts. Hence, the hierarchy of Courts introduced earlier is of significant importance to this principle.


This system provides consistency in the application of the law, which in turn creates legal certainty. This would allow people to act and behave in ways that they can predict to not contravene the law. For instance, in Tort Law, it was a judge-made decision that established that manufacturers have a duty of care in producing an item.²⁷ Based on this binding decision, manufacturers are now cognisant that they have a legal duty to take reasonable steps in producing their goods.


Case laws also assist in the sentencing of offenders as statutes usually only provide the maximum sentence, and not the appropriate sentence, depending on the severity of the offence. For instance, in the case of Public Prosecutor v Wong Chee Meng, the Court laid down a five-step sentencing framework to determine an appropriate sentence based on different factors, for the contravention of the Prevention of Corruption Act.²⁸


Conclusion

The Singapore judiciary ensures that the interpretation and application of the law is fair for all under Singapore’s jurisdiction. Without a forum that the public trusts for the administration of justice, chaos would likely descend onto society as the public would trust themselves to be the better judge, jury and executioner. Hence, the Judiciary plays a vital role in Singapore’s System of Government in ensuring the country’s harmonious state.


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This Policy Explainer was written by members of MAJU. MAJU is an independent, youth-led organisation that focuses on engaging Singaporean youths in a long-term research process to guide them in jointly formulating policy ideas of their own.


By sharing our unique youth perspectives, MAJU hopes to contribute to the policymaking discourse and future of Singapore.

 
¹ SG Courts. n.d. “About the legal system.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/about-legal-system.
² Ibid.
³ SG Courts. n.d. “Understand criminal, civil and family law.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/understand-criminal-civil-family-law.
⁴ Ibid.
⁵ Ibid.
⁶ SG Courts. n.d. “About the Singapore Courts.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/about-singapore-courts.
⁷ SG Courts. n.d. “Role and structure of the State Courts.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/role-structure-state-courts.
⁸ SG Courts. n.d. “Role and structure of the Supreme Court - role.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/role-structure-supreme-court.
⁹ Ibid.
¹⁰ Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969, s29C(2) & s89(1).
¹¹ SG Courts. n.d. “Role and structure of the Family Justice Courts.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 16, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/role-structure-family-justice-courts.
¹² Children and Young Persons Act 1993.
¹³ Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969, s4.
¹⁴ SG Courts. “Role and structure of the State Courts.”
¹⁵ Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, Article 95(1).
¹⁶ Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969, s4.
¹⁷ Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969, s48 and s61.
¹⁸ SG Courts. n.d. “Role and structure of the Supreme Court - structure.” Singapore Courts. Accessed September 17, 2023. https://www.judiciary.gov.sg/who-we-are/role-structure-supreme-court/structure.
¹⁹ Ibid.
²⁰ Ibid.
²¹ SG Courts. “Role and structure of the Supreme Court - structure.”
²² Sempill, Julian. 2021. “The Rule of Law and the Rule of Men: History, Legacy, Obscurity.” Hague Journal on the Rule of Law 12, no. 3 (January): 511-540. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40803-020-00149-9.
²³ European Commission. 2020. “2020 Rule of Law Report: The Rule of Law situation in the European Union.” EUR-Lex. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?qid=1602583951529&uri=CELEX%3A52020DC0580.
²⁴ Elliott, Mark. 2001. The Constitutional Foundations of Judicial Review. England: Hart. Pub., Oxford. https://dx.doi.org/10.5040/9781472559043.
²⁵ Internal Security Act 1960, s8B.
²⁶ SG Courts. “About the legal system.”
²⁷ Donoghue v Stevenson [1932] AC 562.
²⁸ Public Prosecutor v Wong Chee Meng and another appeal [2020] SGHC 144.
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