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Milestones in Singapore's Legal History Courthouses Past and Present

Milestones in Singapore's Legal History

  • The Founding of Singapore and The First Charter of Justice Singapore
    The Founding of Singapore and The First Charter of Justice Singapore was founded on 6 February 1819, when a treaty of friendship and alliance was signed by Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, Sultan Hussein of Johor and Temenggong Abdu'r Rahman. In 1807, the Crown granted the East India Company the First Charter of Justice, which set up a Court of Judicature in Penang.

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  • The Second Charter of Justice
    In 1825, Statute 6 Geo IV c 85 was passed by the British Parliament, enabling the King to make provision for the administration of justice in the British colonies of Singapore and Malacca. These, together with the Prince of Wales' Island (now known as 'Penang') formed the Straits Settlements.

    The Second Charter of Justice was issued on 27 November 1826. This Charter abolished the Recorder's Court, which served only the Prince of Wales' Island, and established the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales' Island, Singapore and Malaya.

    In criminal proceedings, the court was "to administer criminal justice in such¡­ Manner and Form" as the courts in England, with "due attention being (given) to the several Religions, Manners and Usages of the native Inhabitants". The court was to "give and pass Judgment and Sentence according to Justice and Right" in civil proceedings.

    The Governor and the Resident Councillor acted as two judges of the court. The third judge was the Recorder, who was based on the Prince of Wales' Island and had to travel on circuit to Malacca and Singapore from his home base. He was assisted in his duties by the Resident Councillors and the Governor, who sat as lay Judges.

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  • The Third Charter of Justice
    The Third Charter of Justice of 12 August 1855 was granted to cope with the increase in the judicial workload which resulted from Singapore's rapid development.

    Under the Third Charter of Justice, the Court of Judicature was reorganised into two divisions. The first division had jurisdiction over Singapore and Malacca and comprised the Recorder of Singapore, the Governor and the Resident Councillors of Singapore and Malacca. The second division had jurisdiction over the Prince of Wales' Island and Province Wellesley, and comprised the Recorder of Prince of Wales' Island, the Governor and the Resident Councillor of the Prince of Wales' Island.

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  • New Developments in the judicial system: 1868 - 1941
    The Judicial Duties Act of 1867 brought about further changes to our judicial system. The Governor of the Straits Settlements ceased to be a Judge of the Court of Judicature, although the Resident Councillors continued to sit under their new title of Lieutenant-Governors.

    This Act also changed the titles of other officers: the "Recorder of Singapore" became the "Chief Justice of the Straits Settlements" while the "Recorder of Prince of Wales' Island became the "Judge of Prince of Wales' Island". Sir Peter Benson Maxwell, then the Recorder of Singapore, became the first Chief Justice of The Straits Settlements in 1867.

    The Supreme Court Ordinance 1868 abolished the Court of Judicature of Prince of Wales' Island, Singapore and Malacca, replacing it with the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements.

    In turn, the Courts Ordinance of 1873 reconstituted the Court, so that it now consisted of the Chief Justice, the Judge of Penang, a Senior and a Junior Puisne Judge. One division of the Court sat in Singapore and Malacca, whilst another sat in Penang. In addition, the Ordinance conferred on the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements the jurisdiction to sit as a Court of Appeal, with final appeals lying to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. Previously, appeals had lain only to the King-in-Council.

    Further changes to the structure of the judicial system were brought by the Courts Ordinance of 1878. This Ordinance was passed in response to the United Kingdom Judicature Acts of 1873-75, which modified the court structure in England. Under the Ordinance, the jurisdiction for the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements was brought in line with that of the new English High Court.

    The Courts Ordinance of 1907 allowed Judicial Commissioners of the Federated Malay States to be appointed from time to time to perform the duties of a Judge of the Supreme Court of the Straits Settlements.

    The Court of Criminal Appeal Ordinance came into force on 1 September 1934 to provide for the establishment of a Court of Criminal Appeal. This was necessary as, up till then, the Court of Appeal had exercised only appellate civil jurisdiction.

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  • The Japanese Occupation
    Our courts ceased to function when the Japanese invaded Singapore in 1942 and established a Military Court of Justice to administer Military Ordinances and the laws of the Japanese army.

    The courts were re-opened by a Proclamation dated 27 May 1942, which stated that the courts were to follow the former system of laws insofar as they did not interfere with the Military Administration.

    The Syonan Supreme Court or "Syonan Koto-Hoin" was opened on 29 May 1942. A court of appeal was also created, but it never sat.

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  • Developments during the Post-War Years Leading to Independence.
    Following the surrender of the Japanese on 12 September 1945, Singapore was temporarily administered by the British Military Administration. The British Military Administration proclaimed that all Japanese Proclamations and Decrees ceased to have effect, and that "all laws and customs existing immediately prior to the Japanese occupation will be respected".

    The British Military Administration came to an end on 31 March 1946. The Straits Settlements were disbanded and Singapore was made a separate Crown Colony on 1 April 1946. The Supreme Court, consisting of a High Court and a Court of Appeal, was constituted by the Singapore Colony Order in Council. The Court of Criminal Appeal continued to function. Final appeals lay to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in England.

    On 2 May 1955, Mr Tan Ah Tah became the first local-born person to be appointed a Judge of the Supreme Court. Mr Frederick Arthur Chua (appointed on 15 February 1957) and Mr Wee Chong Jin (appointed on 15 August 1957) were appointed thereafter. Mr Wee Chong Jin was also the first local-born member of the Singapore Bar to be appointed to the Supreme Court Bench. Mr Tan Ah Tah and Mr Frederick Arthur Chua were both from the Colonial Legal Service.

    On 5 January 1963, Mr Wee Chong Jin became the first Asian to be appointed the Chief Justice of the State of Singapore. His appointment marked a break in the long-standing tradition (since 1867) of appointing British Chief Justices for Singapore, the last of whom was Sir Alan Rose.

    Singapore's judicial system was altered once again following her merger with Malaysia on 16 September 1963. The Federation of Malaya Act came into force on 16 September 1963, establishing the Federal Court of Malaysia and the structure of the Malaysian judicial system. The Malaysian Courts of Judicature Act 1964 repealed the provisions relating to the Singapore Supreme Court in Singapore's Courts Ordinance as well as the whole of the Singapore's Court of Criminal Appeal Ordinance. The Supreme Court of the Colony of Singapore was replaced by the High Court of Malaysia in Singapore, while the Court of Appeal was assimilated into the Federal Court. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council continued to be the final appellate court.

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  • Post-Independence Developments
    Although Singapore became independent on 9 August 1965, the ties between the judicial systems of Singapore and Malaysia were not severed until 1969. The Supreme Court of Judicature Act 1969, re-established the Supreme Court of Singapore, comprising the High Court, the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal.

    Jury trials were abolished in 1969, by an amendment to the Criminal Procedure Code which provided for trials of capital offences to be heard by two judges. This arrangement continued until 18 April 1992, when the Criminal Procedure Code was amended to allow for trials of capital offences to be heard before a single Judge.

    The next important milestone for Singapore's judicial system was the introduction of Judicial Commissioners to the Supreme Court Bench, with the first Judicial Commissioner, Mr Chan Sek Keong, being appointed on 1 July 1986. A Judicial Commissioner is appointed for specific periods of time and may exercise the powers and perform the functions of a Judge. In this capacity, he enjoys the same immunities as a Judge.

    On 28 September 1990, Mr Wee Chong Jin retired as Chief Justice, and Mr Yong Pung How, took over as the head of the Judiciary.

    The first female to be appointed to the Supreme Court Bench was Ms Lai Siu Chiu, who was appointed a Judicial Commissioner on 2 May 1991. Thereafter, Ms Judith Prakash was appointed a Judicial Commissioner on 1 April 1992. They were appointed Judges of the High Court on 2 May 1994 and 1 April 1995 respectively.

    In 1993, the existing appellate court, which comprised the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal, was reconstituted into a single Court of Appeal for both civil and criminal appeals. The present Court of Appeal normally comprises the Chief Justice and the Judges of Appeal, who rank above the High Court judges. A Judge of the High Court may also, on the request of the Chief Justice, sit as a Judge of the Court of Appeal.

    The first Judges of Appeal to be appointed were Justice M Karthigesu and Justice L P Thean, both of whom were appointed as Judges of Appeal on 1 July 1993.

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Courthouses Past and Present

  • The Physical Buildings
    The 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.

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  • The former Parliament House
    The 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.

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  • The Empress Place Building
    The 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.

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  • The old Supreme Court Building
    The 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.

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  • The City Hall Building
    Designed 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 (now Minister Mentor) 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 (now Senior Minister) 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.

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Last updated on 21 MAY 2010
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