Singapore’s legislative structure
Due to the fact that Singapore is a former British colony, the legal system there 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.
History of Singapore’s Legal System
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.
How Laws in Singapore Are Formulated
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.
The Supreme Court is the highest judicial court in Singapore. It consists of the High Court and the Court of Appeal.
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.