Courthouses Past and Present
The Physical BuildingsThe physical buildings which have represented Singapore's legal system since the founding of Singapore in 1819, form an important part of the country's legal heritage. These include the former Parliament House, the Empress Place Building, the old Supreme Court Building and the City Hall.
The Former Parliament HouseThe former Parliament House, the oldest government building in Singapore, was the original courthouse used by the British from 1827. It was designed by George Coleman and was meant as a residence for a merchant named John Argyle Maxwell. Work commenced in 1826 and the building was completed in 1827. Maxwell then leased the building to the colonial government for 15 years at a rent of 500 rupees a month. The ownership of the courthouse was finally transferred to Governor S G Bonham and the East India Company on 10 October 1842 for 15,600 Spanish dollars.
The first court session was held in the central room on the first floor at the front of the building facing High Street. In 1839, a single storey annexe was erected on an adjacent site to serve as a new courthouse so that the whole of the old courthouse could be used to house government offices.
As the new court premises lay next to a shipbuilding yard, the noise from the yard frequently drowned the addresses of the Judge or the evidence of the witnesses. In November 1854, the Grand Jury condemned the annexe as being totally unsuitable for a Court of Justice due to the incessant clamour from the adjoining shipbuilding yard. However, nothing was done until July 1864, when the foundation stone for a new courthouse at the Empress Place Building was laid. The new courthouse was completed in 1865, and now forms the centre portion of the Empress Place Building.
The Empress Place BuildingThe Empress Place Building was, in fact, a conglomerate of buildings built at various different times. The centre wing is the oldest part of the building and was built from 1864 to 1865. This wing was designed by Major FA McNair and functioned as a courthouse for Singapore until 1875.
Court proceedings were carried out at the Empress Place Building until 1875 when renovations to the former Parliament House were completed. The Courts moved back into the former Parliament House and remained there until 1939, when they moved into the Supreme Court building.
The Old Supreme Court BuildingThe old Supreme Court building was built between 1937 and 1939 on the site of the former Grand Hotel de L'Europe. The Chief Architect of the Public Works Department, Frank Dorrington Ward, came up with no fewer than eight variations on the design of the old Supreme Court building. This building was Ward's last and greatest work, and was acknowledged by many as his most significant creation.
The old Supreme Court building was declared open by Sir Thomas Shenton Whitelegge Thomas, Governor of the Straits Settlements, and handed over to the then Chief Justice, Sir Percy McElwaine, on 3 August 1939. The foundation stone of the Supreme Court building was laid by Sir Shenton Thomas on 1 April 1937, and was, at that time, the biggest foundation stone in the whole of Malaya. A "time capsule" containing six Singapore newspapers dated 31 March 1937, as well as a handful of Straits Settlements coins, was buried beneath the foundation stone. The time capsule is slated to be retrieved in the year 3000.
The imposing Corinthian and Ionic columns, as well as the tympanum sculpture fronting the Supreme Court Building, were the work of Cavalieri Rudolfo Nolli, a Milanese sculptor. The central figure in the tympanum is that of Justice, with a figure immediately to its left representing the lost soul begging for protection from it. Next to this figure are two legislators with books in hand, representing the law. To the right of Justice, a figure bows in gratitude, followed by a man with a bull, representing riches and prosperity. Two young children holding a sheaf of wheat represent abundance from law and justice.
Another point of interest for visitors is that the old Supreme Court building actually features two domes: the main copper-coloured dome which dominates Singapore's skyline, and a smaller dome which is hardly visible at street level, but which originally used to house a beautifully designed library.
The old Supreme Court Building was originally constructed to house just four courts. Due to an increasing workload, additional courtrooms were constructed in the adjacent City Hall in November 1986.
The City Hall BuildingDesigned by municipal architect F D Meadows, the City Hall building was built between 1926 and 1929, and was originally known as the Municipal Building. It used to house the offices of the Municipal Council, later known as City Council, which was responsible for the provision of water, electricity, gas, roads and bridges and street lighting. Over time, other government bodies absorbed the functions of the City Council.
Extensive renovations were carried out on the City Hall building between November 1987 and May 1991 to build 12 additional courtrooms. In addition, the City Hall building has also housed other government departments such as the Public Service Commission and the Industrial Arbitration Court.
The City Hall was also the scene of many important events in the history of Singapore. On 12 September 1945, when Admiral Lord Louis Mountbatten accepted the surrender of the Japanese forces on behalf of the allied forces, the signing of the surrender papers took place in the City Hall Chamber. The first Prime Minister of independent Singapore, Mr Lee Kuan Yew and members of his Cabinet, took their Oaths of Allegiance and Oaths of Office on 5 June 1959 in the City Hall Chamber. Singapore's second Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong and members of his Cabinet also took their Oaths of Allegiance and Oaths of Office in the City Hall Chamber, on 28 November 1990. Several National Day Parades have also been carried out in front of the building's steps.
Current Supreme Court
The Supreme Court is located up north from the Singapore River, within the heart of Singapore’s Colonial District. Designed with a modern twist, this building embodies the very values of our justice system—namely dignity, openness and transparency.
The 9-storey building spans 77,609 square metres, and has 14 civil, 8 criminal and 3 appeal courts. It also houses an auditorium, a library, a cafeteria and a gymnasium. The courts themselves are grouped by judicial hierarchy. Occupying the lower floors are the civil courts. Seated right above them are the criminal courts. Finally, laying on the rooftop is a disc-like dome where the court of the appeal, the highest court, rests.
The building is architected for long-term flexibility. If there was ever a need for physical expansion or technological reconfiguration, it would be structurally ready. It is also environmentally-friendly. The glazed stone—which is a laminate of stone and glass—seems opaque, but by day allows natural sunlight to shine through, and by night emits a warm moonlit glow. Added to that are climate control devices, such as solar shading to the offices, and rooftop trees that are purposely planted to shelter over the public promenade.