All You Need to Know About Singapore Legal System

17 min read|Last Updated: May 24, 2023|

According to the Political and Economic Risk Consultancy (PERC), Singapore is the least corrupt country in Asia and one of the least corrupt in the world. Singapore’s efficient and transparent legal system has done much to allow the country to flourish, whether economically or otherwise. In return, this is why many foreigners register their companies in Singapore.

1. Areas of law

The legal system of Singapore is based on the English common law system. Major areas of law such as administrative law, contract law, equity and trust law, property law, and tort law have decisions primarily made by judges. However, certain aspects of such laws have been modified to some extent by statutes. Other areas of law in Singapore such as criminal law, company law, and family law are almost completely statutory.

Certain Singapore statutes are not based on English enactments; they are instead based on legislation from other jurisdictions. In such situations, court decisions from those jurisdictions with regard to the original legislation are usually examined. For this reason, Indian law is sometimes consulted for the interpretation of the Evidence Act and the Penal Code because these laws are based on Indian statutes.

2. Case law considerations

Judges in Singapore refer to either relevant Singaporean cases or English case law if the issues involved pertain to a traditional common-law area of law or involve the interpretation of Singaporean statutes based on English enactments or English statutes which are applicable in Singapore. Some judges also consider decisions made in major Commonwealth nations such as Australia and Canada; this is especially true if their approach is different from that of English law.

Singapore’s legislative structure

As Singapore used to be a former British colony, the legal system is based on English common law. All Singaporean citizens are equal in the eyes of the law. Singapore’s laws are based on the constitution, legislation, subsidiary legislation, and legal decisions made by judges.

The constitution protects the fundamental rights of all individuals. It comprises the fundamental principles and basic framework for the three organs of state; these are the executive (the president, prime minister, and other ministers who are responsible for government affairs and to be held accountable to parliament), the legislature (the president, parliament, and parliament’s legislative authority responsible for the enactment of legislation), and the judiciary (courts of law which operate separately from the executive and legislature).

  • Legislation or statutory laws refers to the written laws enacted by the parliament of Singapore or other bodies that had the power to pass such laws in the past in Singapore.
  • Subsidiary legislation or subordinate legislation refers to the written laws made by ministers, government agencies, or statutory boards.  Subsidiary legislation is made under a parent statute.
  • Judge-made law refers to court judgements which are considered a source of law. Most decisions made by judges related to property law, contract law, and trust law are considered to be forms of judge-made law.

Singapore joined the Federation of Malaysia on September 16, 1963. At this point, it would no longer be a colony of the British Empire. The legal system of Singapore would be affected by the enactment of the Malaysia Act 1963 (UK), the Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore (State Constitutions) Order in Council 1963, and the Malaysia Act 1963 (Malaysia).

From 1963 to 1965, many Malaysian laws including Federated Malay States Enactments as well Malayan Union and Federation of Malaya Ordinances were extended to Singapore. Some of these statutes continue to apply in Singapore today; however, they are generally modified from their original forms.

According to the Malaysia Act 1963, the judicial power of Malaysia would be vested in a Federal Court, a High Court in Malaya, a High Court in Borneo, and a High Court in Singapore. This new structure was made official on March 16, 1964, through the Courts of Judicature Act 1964. This act replaced the Supreme Court of the Colony of Singapore with the High Court of Malaysia in Singapore. The High Court in Singapore would now only have power within the territory of the State of Singapore.

When Singapore became independent in 1965, the country’s parliament left its judicial system unchanged. Therefore, between 1965 and 1969, the High Court in Singapore was part of the Malaysian court system. Then, in 1969, the constitution was amended to establish the Supreme Court of Singapore. It replaced the Federal Court of Malaysia with respect to Singapore. However, the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council in London would retain its status as Singapore’s court of final appeal.

The Supreme Court would be divided into two divisions. Its upper division would consist of the Court of Appeal and the Court of Criminal Appeal, which would manage civil and criminal matters respectively. Its lower division would be the High Court of Singapore.

In 1993, the previous setup of a separate Court of Appeal and Court of Criminal Appeal was abolished. In their place a unified Court of Appeal was created to address both civil and criminal appeals alike. Judges of Appeal who were to be appointed to the Court of Appeal would no longer be required to engage in High Court work. The Chief Justice would serve as the President of the Court of Appeal. The establishment of the permanent Court of Appeal subsequently led the abolition of all appeals to the Privy Council; this ruling took effect on April 8, 1994. Today, the Court of Appeal of Singapore is the most important court in Singapore.

Singapore’s legal system was confirmed as independent through the repeal of Section 5 of the Civil Law Act on November 12, 1993, via the Application of English Law Act 1993. The Act aims to clarify the extent of the application of English laws in Singapore. It states that the common laws of England, including its principles and rules of equity, will continue to be part of Singapore law only if it is applicable to the circumstances of Singapore and its inhabitants. English laws in Singapore are subject modifications as circumstantially required. Only the English statutes listed in the Schedules to the Act in Singapore. No other English laws are part of Singapore law.

Singapore’s legal framework encompasses different types of law and courts to administer justice.

Common Law: Inherited from the British, Singapore’s common law plays a significant role. It follows the practice of judicial precedent, where laws are established through court judgments. Judges are bound to apply the ratio decidendi (operative reason for the decision) of higher courts within the same hierarchy. Singapore’s common law covers various areas such as contract law, equity and trust law, property law, and tort law. While judge-made law dominates, some aspects have been influenced by statutes.

Criminal Law: Singapore’s Criminal Law is primarily statutory and revolves around the comprehensive Penal Code. This code defines criminal offenses and stipulates the corresponding punishments. Originally based on Indian law, the Penal Code was later replaced by the Criminal Procedure Code, which aligns with criminal procedures in England. The High Court and the Court of Appeal handle criminal proceedings in Singapore. The High Court conducts trials, hears appeals from subordinate courts, and deals with revisionary matters and points of law submitted by subordinate courts. The Court of Appeal handles appeals against High Court decisions and considers points of law referred from criminal matters heard by the High Court.

Criminal Mentions Court: Criminal cases may be tried at the Criminal Mentions Court, which formally charges accused individuals when the prosecution is ready. Offenders must be charged within 48 hours of arrest and remand. The court comprises two divisions: one for District Arrest Cases (DACs) and another for Magistrates Arrest Cases (MACs).

Civil Law: In civil matters, the jurisdiction is divided among the High Court, District Court, Magistrates’ Court, and Small Claims Tribunal. The High Court handles cases with a subject matter value exceeding SGD 250,000, while the District Court deals with disputes up to SGD 250,000. The Magistrates’ Court takes on cases where the dispute value does not exceed SGD 60,000. The Small Claims Tribunal resolves claims not exceeding SGD 10,000 (or up to SGD 20,000 with mutual agreement) related to the sale of goods, provision of services, or property damage (except for motor vehicle accidents).

In Singapore’s legal system, the courts ensure the fair administration of justice, addressing both criminal and civil matters based on specific jurisdiction and legal principles.

Court of Appeal: The Court of Appeal serves as the highest appellate court in Singapore. Comprised of the Chief Justice and Judges of Appeal, it hears appeals from decisions made by the High Court in both civil and criminal cases. Typically, three judges preside over the Court of Appeal, but the number may vary on certain occasions.

High Court: The High Court consists of the Chief Justice, Judges of the High Court, and sometimes includes Judges of Appeal or subject matter experts. It handles both criminal and civil cases, as well as appeals from the decisions of District Courts and Magistrates’ Courts. The High Court has jurisdiction over various matters, including admiralty cases, company winding-up, bankruptcy, and admission of advocates and solicitors. It exercises supervisory and revisionary powers over all subordinate courts. The High Court deals with cases where the subject matter value exceeds SGD 250,000 and tries criminal cases involving the death penalty or imprisonment exceeding 10 years.

Subordinate Courts: The Subordinate Courts encompass several specialized courts and handle less complex matters compared to the High Court.

  • District Court: The District Court hears civil cases with claims ranging from more than SGD 60,000 to SGD 250,000. It also tries criminal offenses punishable by a maximum imprisonment term of 10 years or below or those punishable by a fine. The District Court can impose various penalties, including imprisonment, fines, caning, reformative training, or a combination thereof.

  • Magistrates’ Courts: Magistrates’ Courts handle civil cases with claims not exceeding SGD 60,000 and try criminal offenses with a maximum imprisonment term of 3 years or below or offenses punishable by a fine. The court can sentence individuals to a maximum of 2 years’ imprisonment, impose fines up to SGD 2,000, or administer a maximum of 6 strokes of the cane.

  • Juvenile Court: The Juvenile Court specifically deals with offenses committed by children (under 14 years of age) or young persons (14 to 16 years of age). It handles Beyond Parental Control Cases, Juvenile Arrest Cases, and Care & Protection Order Cases.

  • Coroners’ Court: The Coroners’ Court conducts inquiries into deaths that occur suddenly, unnaturally, by violence, or when the manner of death is unknown. It investigates cases such as suspected suicides, road traffic accidents, industrial accidents, and deaths in prisons. A Coroner, who is a Judge of the Subordinate Courts, conducts the investigations with the assistance of the police.

  • Small Claims Tribunal: The Small Claims Tribunal resolves disputes between consumers and suppliers, contracts for goods or services, and residential lease agreements not exceeding 2 years. It has the jurisdiction to hear claims up to SGD 10,000 (which can be raised to SGD 20,000 in certain cases). Parties can represent themselves without a lawyer, and the tribunal is presided over by Referees appointed by the President upon the Chief Justice’s recommendation.

Other specialized courts include the Family Court, Night Court, Community Court, Syariah Court, and Traffic Court, which handle specific types of cases within their respective jurisdictions.

The diverse court system in Singapore ensures that various legal matters, ranging from complex civil disputes to criminal offenses, are heard and addressed by the appropriate courts.

Resolving Disputes Through Court System

When it comes to business and employment disputes in Singapore, there are several courts available to address these matters. The choice of court depends on the nature and value of the claim involved. Let’s explore the courts that handle such disputes:

Civil Courts: In general, business disputes are heard in Civil Courts. The following courts fall under the jurisdiction of the Civil Courts system:

  • High Court: The High Court is the primary court for handling business disputes. It has the authority to hear cases with substantial claims and complex legal issues. Parties can approach the High Court for resolution when the value of the claim exceeds SGD 250,000. Additionally, the High Court hears appeals from the decisions of lower courts.

  • District Court: The District Court is another option for resolving business disputes. It handles cases with claims ranging from more than SGD 60,000 to SGD 250,000. The District Court is suitable for disputes that do not require the involvement of the High Court but still involve significant amounts.

  • Magistrates’ Court: For less complex and lower-value disputes, the Magistrates’ Court is the appropriate forum. It deals with cases where the claim does not exceed SGD 60,000. The Magistrates’ Court provides a more accessible and cost-effective option for resolving smaller business disputes.

Small Claims Tribunal: The Small Claims Tribunal is designed to handle minor disputes involving relatively small amounts. It offers a simplified process and allows individuals and businesses to resolve their claims without the need for legal representation. The tribunal has jurisdiction over claims not exceeding SGD 10,000 (which can be raised to SGD 20,000 in certain cases).

Specialized Courts: Apart from the Civil Courts and the Small Claims Tribunal, there are specialized courts that address specific types of disputes:

  • Copyright Tribunal: The Copyright Tribunal focuses on resolving disputes between copyright owners and users of copyrighted materials. It helps ensure fair compensation and licensing agreements between parties involved in copyright-related matters.

  • Labour Court: The Labour Court plays a crucial role in handling employment-related issues. When employers and employees cannot resolve their disputes through mediation or reconciliation, they can turn to the Labour Court for resolution. This court deals with a wide range of employment matters, including unfair dismissal, salary disputes, and workplace grievances.

These specialized courts provide targeted expertise in specific areas of law, ensuring efficient and effective resolution of disputes in their respective domains.

In summary, when facing business or employment disputes in Singapore, parties have access to various courts depending on the nature and value of the claim. The Civil Courts, including the High Court, District Court, and Magistrates’ Court, handle general business disputes, while the Small Claims Tribunal offers a simplified process for smaller claims. Additionally, specialized courts like the Copyright Tribunal and Labour Court address specific types of disputes within their respective jurisdictions. This diverse range of courts ensures that businesses and individuals can seek appropriate legal remedies and resolutions tailored to their specific needs.

How  Laws in Singapore  Are  Formulated

Here’s how the laws in Singapore are formed:

Stage 1: Introduction and First Reading 

The formulation of laws in Singapore begins with the first reading of a bill. During the first reading of a bill, the long title of the bill is read aloud. The bill will then be submitted to the Clerk of Parliament who will then print and circulate the bill to the Members of Parliament. After the first reading, all bills will be published in the Government Gazette Bills Supplement.

Stage 2: Second Reading 

After a bill has been read a second time, it is presented to a parliamentary committee of the unless parliament chooses to commit it to a select committee. The committee has the power to amend the bill if it deems such to be necessary. During the second reading, the Minister involved explains the purpose of the bill as well as its provisions. Members of Parliament then debate the bill. After the bill has been considered by a parliamentary committee, the bill is then reported from the committee of the whole parliament, where it will be read for a third time.

Stage 3: Select Committee 

Should a bill require special consideration, parliament may on motion commit it to a select committee which is comprised of selected Members of Parliament. The public will then be invited to make written representations to the select committee regarding the bill and may also be invited to provide evidence in front of the select committee on the matter. Any deliberations and enquiries made by the select committee are to be about the bill and its relevant amendments. After the bill has been amended by the select committee, the amended bill will be annexed to the report of the select committee. After the bill has been considered by the select committee, the bill is then reported from the committee of the whole parliament where it is to be read for a third time.

Stage 4: Third Reading 

On the third reading of the bill, the amendments, if any, will be proposed. The debate at the third reading is restricted to the contents of the bill. Any amendment which raises matters not included in the bill is not accepted. After the third reading, the bill is put to vote.

Stage 5: Presidential Council for Minority Rights 

According to Singapore’s constitution, all bills passed by parliament except for money bills, urgent bills, and bills affecting defense, security, public safety, peace, or public order in Singapore must be forwarded to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights to ensure that they do not discriminate against any racial or religious community.

Stage 6: Presidential Assent 

After the bill has been assessed by the Presidential Council of Minority Rights, the bill is presented to the President. A bill becomes law only after the President provides assent.

Stage 7: Subsidiary Legislation 

Acts of Parliament usually state general principles and establish a regulatory framework. Many Acts of Parliament contain provisions that give the Ministry or statutory board which is charged with administering the Act the authority to issue rules and regulations to further the purposes and objectives of the Act without having to refer such rules and regulations to parliament for further approval. This means that parliament delegates the authority to issue rules and regulations under the Act to the Minister or statutory board directly associated with the Act. Such rules and regulations are known as subsidiary legislation because they are subsidiary to the Act under which they are issued. Therefore, all subsidiary legislation must be consistent with their related Acts.

In Singapore, all subsidiary legislation is also drafted and vetted by the Legislation Division of the Attorney-General’s Chambers. The Attorney-General’s Chambers must vet all subsidiary legislation to ensure that it is not inconsistent with the Act under which it is issued, any other Act of parliament, or the constitution. The completed draft is then returned to the relevant ministry or statutory board so that it can be signed and published.

Roles of the High Courts and Supreme Court

As the highest judicial court in Singapore, the Supreme Court tries major cases in the High Court. It also hears appeals from the High Court and State Courts. and ensures that the law is always fairly and consistently applied.

There are two tiers of the court system in Singapore.

First Tier

The Supreme Court is the highest judicial court in Singapore. It consists of the High Court and the Court of Appeal.

High Court

The High Court bench is comprised of the Chief Justice and Judges of the High Court. The High Court makes decisions related to laws in special cases submitted by a District Court or a Magistrate’s Court. The High Court has general jurisdiction over all State Courts with regard to any civil or criminal matter. Thus, the High Court may overturn decisions made by State Courts and also ask for a new trial to be conducted.
Cases are typically heard before a single judge unless otherwise stated in a written law.

Court of Appeal

The Court of Appeal hears appeals regarding civil and criminal cases from the High Court. Appeals may be heard by either two or three judges; the setup with three is more common. In major cases, the Court of Appeal is comprised of five or more judges; the number of judges must be uneven.

The Court of Appeal is presided over by the Chief Justice and is comprised of Judges of Appeal. In the Chief Justice’s absence, a judge of the Supreme Court or a Judge of Appeal may serve as a substitute.


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Are there any major differences between court cases involving foreigners and those involving locals?2020-07-03T11:52:19+08:00

Court cases involving foreigners and locals in Singapore are usually managed by the courts in a similar manner. However, as each case is different, there will of course be slight differences between cases.  

How expensive are lawyers’ fees in Singapore?2020-07-03T11:51:53+08:00

There is no standard fee structure in Singapore. Lawyers in Singapore may impose charges based on either fixed fee or by the hour. Different legal firms also impose different charges. 

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