Criminal justice system

This article is written by Parth Sharma, pursuing a Certificate Course in Introduction to Legal Drafting: Contracts, Petitions, Opinions & Articles from LawSikho. This article is an in-depth study of the judicial system in Singapore.

It has been published by Rachit Garg.


The judicial system of Singapore is well known for the efficiency it has shown to international businesses as well as the reliability it has given to its citizens. The system has significantly developed since 1989. At that time, it was infamous, as it was characterised by delays, limited access, high costs, archaic procedures, and weak administrative capacity, among other problems. The island country in Southeast Asia has witnessed exponential growth in its economy because of its amended and improved judicial system.

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Witnessing these changes, some questions have emerged in everyone’s mind. How did a country so embedded in the status quo and often considered inward-looking achieve these remarkable changes? What were the adopted reforms? How did the system evolve? What is the legislative and judicial history? How did the modern system come into shape? Answers to these questions will help us better comprehend the modern judicial system of Singapore and shed light on lessons that policymakers all over the globe could grasp to make their judicial systems as effective as the ones in Singapore. This article seeks answers to these questions. To do so, several perspectives can be taken into account. This article delves into the perspective that would take a holistic look at the multidisciplinary facets of the judicial system and shows how the overall development of the jurisprudence of Singapore’s courts took place.

Historical background and evolution of the judicial system of Singapore

Historical records that were not shrouded in time and several accounts from the third century describe Singapore as “Pulau Ujong,” which, as per the Malay language, means “island at the end of the peninsula.” Since then, the city has been ruled by several ancient rulers who turned the city into a trading post for vessels such as Chinese junks, Arab dhows, Portuguese battleships, and Buginese schooners.

The modern city of Singapore was established in the 19th century. The man responsible for the establishment of the city was Sir Stamford Raffles of the East India Company. The British Empire was eyeing the island because of its strategic location, which was ideal for the convergent point of the traders from east and west. In 1819, a treaty was signed between Sir Raffles and Sultan Hussein that equipped the East India Company with the rights to establish a factory in Singapore. This is considered to be the inception of the modern legal system of Singapore. In 1823, a code of law was administered for Singapore by Sir Raffles. Though these regulations are considered illegal as Sir Raffles was acting beyond his legal powers, the code functioned as the sole body of judicial regulation in Singapore until 1826. The code was responsible for setting up the magistrates’ courts in Singapore.

The occupation of the British Empire was formalised by the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824. On September 19 1924, a treaty was signed between the Sultan and the new resident, John Crawfrud, through which Singapore and Malacca were surrendered to the East India Company. Until 1826, the treaty of cessation was not ratified by the British Parliament. Until the arrival of the second charter of justice, the judicial administration of John Crawfrud was, technically speaking, illegal. The Crawfrud administration established resident’s courts in place of magistrates’ courts. A Court of Requests was also established. Higher government officials and leading merchants were appointed as the justices of the peace by the administration. A recorder’s court was also established.

In 1825, the British parliament enabled the King to administer the judicial system in the British colonies of Singapore and Malacca. These colonies, along with the Prince of Wales Islands (Penang), formed strait settlements. The criminal courts started functioning in a manner identical to the courts in England. The customs and usages of the native inhabitants were given due diligence. 

On 12 August 1855, the third charter of justice was passed to bifurcate the workload upon the court of judicature. The charter reorganised the court of judicature into two divisions. The jurisdiction of the first division was over Singapore and Malacca,  Prince of Wales Island and Province Wellesley came under the jurisdiction of the second division. It included the recorder, the governor, and the resident councillor of Prince of Wales Island.

The judicial system of Singapore was further introduced to some new changes. The Judicial Duties Act was approved in 1867 which ceased the governor to be the judge of the court of Judicature in the strait settlements. The resident councillors were bestowed with the new title of Lieutenant Governors, and they continued to be the judges of the courts under the new title. Under the new act, the title of “Recorder of Singapore” was renamed to “Chief Justice of Strait Settlements,” whereas the title of “Recorder of the Prince of Wales Island” was renamed to “Judge of the Prince of Wales Island.” In 1868, an ordinance was passed that abolished the Court of Judicature of the Strait Settlements and replaced it with the Supreme Court of the Strait Settlements. After the reconstitution of 1873, the court consisted of a Chief Justice, the judge of Penang, a junior and a senior puisne judge. From 1873 to 1875, several ordinances were passed in the United Kingdom that modified the structure of the courts in England. In response to these changes, in 1878, the judicial system of Singapore underwent some structural changes that brought the Supreme Court of Straight Settlements into line with the High Courts of England. Until 1934, the court of appeals had only exercised civil appellate jurisdiction. To correct this, on September 1, 1934, the criminal appeal ordinance came into force, resulting in the establishment of the court of criminal appeal.

Singapore was facing the wrath of World War II along with the rest of the Pacific. In 1942, it was invaded by Japan. Post-invasion the judicial system of Singapore ceased to function. The Japanese military established military courts that administered the laws of the Japanese army. By a proclamation dated 1942, the courts were allowed to function as per the former laws in so far as they did not interfere in the military administration. The Japanese surrendered on 12th September 1945. Singapore came under the administration of the British military, and it stayed under its helm till March 31, 1946. On April 1, 1946, Singapore was made into a separate British colony, and the strait settlements were disbanded. The Singapore colony order in council constituted the Supreme Court, which comprised the High Court and a court of appeals. The final appeals were laid before the judicial committee of the Privy Council in England. On September 16, 1963, Singapore was merged with Malaysia, following which the judicial system of Singapore underwent some changes. The Federation of Malaya Act of 1963 established the structure of the Malaysian Judicial System in Singapore. The judicial committee of the Privy Council of England still functioned as the final appellate authority.

On August 9, 1965, Singapore attained its independence and the ties between the countries were severed in 1969. In 1969, the Supreme Court of Judicature Act was passed, which re-instituted the Supreme Court. The High Court, the Court of Appeals, and the Court of Criminal Appeal were also revived. In the same year, an amendment was introduced to the Criminal Procedure Code of Singapore that abolished jury trials. Another amendment was introduced in 1992 that allowed the single judges bench to try cases related to capital offences. Before the 1992 amendment, capital offences were tried by a two judges bench. In 1993, the separate appellate courts were merged into a single court of appeal for both criminal and civil offences.

The modern judicial system

Singapore, a former British colony, has adopted the English common law in its legal system. Constitution, legislation, subsidiary legislation and precedent are considered to be the four pillars of the legal system of Singapore. Singapore’s legal system majorly follows three kinds of laws. First, the common law. As we know, Singapore is a former British colony, and common law, which was inherited from the empire, is still practised in the legal framework. Second, the criminal law. The island country has a penal code divided into 24 chapters that are based on the Indian Penal Code. Third, civil law. Various courts in the system have been entrusted with hearing matters involving civil disputes. The various kinds of courts and their jurisdictions are mentioned below.

Hierarchy of courts in Singapore

There are two tiers of courts in the judicial system of Singapore. One is the Supreme Court and the other are the subordinate courts, with the former comprising the high court and the court of appeal. Following are the kinds of courts that are found in the judicial system of Singapore, along with their jurisdictions:

  • Court of Appeal– The judgements pertaining to both civil and criminal matters that are passed by the high courts are challenged in the court of appeal. The Chief Justice and two judges of appeal preside over the court of appeals. However, this figure may change on certain occasions.

The doctrine of Stare Decisis is one of the features of Singapore’s judicial system. The precedents of the court of appeals are binding on the subordinate courts. In the case of Public Prosecutor vs. Lam Leng Hung, the word “agent” under the penal code was interpreted by the High Court of Singapore, and the interpretation was upheld by the Court of Appeal. In case the Court of Appeal decides to depart from its earlier judgements, a reason for the same has to be provided by the court. In the case of Ng Kean Meng Terence vs. Public Prosecutor, the Court of Appeal reconsidered its stance on the guilty plea of the accused and held that the guilty plea can only be considered as a mitigating factor in consideration of sentencing. In criminal matters, the court tries cases involving the death penalty and imprisonment for over 10 years.

  • High Court- It is composed of a chief justice and other judges. In some cases, the judges can be of the Court of Appeal or experts on a particular subject. The appeals from district and magistrates courts are presented in the High Court. For instance, in the case of Parti Liyani vs. Public Prosecutor, the High Court took a different view than that of the district court, in consideration of the evidence, overturned the decision of the district court, and acquitted the accused person.

The jurisdiction extends to both civil and criminal cases. The cases with a value of over S$ 2,50,000 are dealt with by the High Court.

  • District Courts– Civil cases of value up to $2,50,000 and criminal offences with a maximum punishment of up to 10 years are dealt with by the district courts. The district court has the power to sentence a person to up to 7 years imprisonment, a fine of value up to $10,000, a caning of a maximum 12 of strokes, reformative training, or a combination of all. However, Amnesty International has requested the Singapore authorities to let go of the punishment of caning.
  • Magistrates Court– Civil cases of value up to $60,000 are dealt with by the magistrates’ court. In criminal cases, offences that have a maximum punishment of 3 years or are punishable with a fine are dealt with by the magistrates’ court. Caning of a maximum of 6 strokes, a maximum fine of $2000 and a maximum imprisonment of 2 years can be given by this court.
  • Coroner’s Court– Deaths that have happened a) due to violence or b) in an unnatural manner or c) the reason for the death is unknown, in such cases, the coroners’ court hold inquiries. The investigation is conducted by the judge with the assistance of the police.
  • Juvenile court– The juvenile court entertains the offences that are committed by a child up to the age of 14–16 years.
  • Small Claims Tribunal– Small claims between suppliers and consumers, cases about contracts for goods and services, and leases of residential property of up to 2 years are dealt with by the small claims tribunal. Referees appointed by the president preside over the tribunal and are permitted to try cases of value up to $ 10,000.
  • Family Court- Matters pertaining to matrimonial disputes, domestic violence, matrimonial property, adoption of children, and maintenance of a child are entertained by the family court.
  • Night Court- From Monday to Friday, after 6 pm, the night courts deal with the issued summons and notices by the government departments such as the Urban Redevelopment Authority, Central Provident Fund Board etc. The traffic offences highlighted by the traffic police are also dealt with by the night court.
  • Community Court- Matters pertaining to the offences committed by youthful offenders (aged 16-18 years), family violence, attempted suicide, neighbourhood disputes and offences committed by mentally challenged offenders are dealt with by the community court.
  • Syariah Court– The Syariah Court deals with marriage and divorce disputes between parties who married in accordance with Muslim law or are Muslim by religious identity.
  • Traffic Court– The traffic court entertains the offences put forward by traffic police and land transport authorities.

Caseload and employment structure

Out of all the cases that the judicial system of Singapore entertains in a year, more than 95% are dealt with by the subordinate courts. The subordinate court works under immense pressure. Around 70% of the total workforce in the judicial system works in the subordinate courts. Around 14% out of that 70% are judicial officers.

Either the president appoints the judicial officers in the subordinate courts or they are appointed on the recommendation of the Chief Justice. The judicial officers hold their office at the pleasure of the president.

Singapore’s Supreme Court comprises the Chief Justice, High Court judges, Judges of Appeal, and Judicial Commissioners. The appointed judges stay in their office until they attain the age of 65, with eligibility for re-appointment post-retirement. The judges are appointed by the President in consultation with the Prime Minister.

Alternative dispute resolution

Singapore has witnessed immense growth, thanks to the liberalised economy, which has led to the growth of the ADR sector in the country. Singapore is one of the epicentres in the world for dispute resolution. Famous for its impartiality and integrity, it has become the forum of choice for dispute resolution. Mediation is actively encouraged by the government for dispute resolution before turning to the courts for relief. The Singapore International Mediation Institute and the Singapore International Mediation Centres have established their names as being the preferred forums of the international business community for international commercial mediation. Furthermore, the Singapore convention provides for the cross-border enforcement of mediation awards. 

Arbitration is still a fairly new concept in the context of Singapore being a hub for dispute resolution. With the passing of the New York Convention on the Recognition and Enforcement of Foreign Awards and Singapore being a signatory to the convention, the awards made in Singapore have been made binding and enforceable in India. Arbitration has gained immense popularity in Singapore, so much so that, in 2018, Singapore was named the 3rd most preferred country for arbitration.

Specialised tribunals in Singapore

The following are the specialised tribunals that were established in Singapore’s judicial system:-

  • Community Dispute Resolution Tribunal- On 1st Oct 2015, under the Community Dispute Resolution Act, this tribunal was established. In case the issues between neighbours are not solved through mediation, the tribunal steps in to resolve such cases. Neighbouring issues such as loitering, excessive noise, smell, smoke, and trespass are dealt with by this tribunal. These cases often emerge in areas with a high density of people belonging to different races and cultures.

The following are the orders that can be passed by the Community Dispute Resolution Tribunal: a) Damages up to $20,000; b) an injunction; c) specific performance; d) the issuance of an apology.

The registrar is entrusted with the passing of such orders. In case parties are not satisfied with the order, an appeal can be made to the tribunal judge. The high court is the second appellate authority.

  • Employment Claims Tribunal- As the name suggests, this tribunal resolves disputes regarding the salary between the employee and the employer. This tribunal was established on April 1st 2017, to provide a low-cost and speedy resolution of disputes. The Employment Claims Act 2016, The Employment Claims Rules 2017, and The Employment Claims Regulations 2017 are some of the primary pieces of legislation that govern the ECT. 

The ECT is empowered to try cases with a value up to $20,000. However, disputes up to the value of $30,000 that have undergone mediation with the assistance of the Industrial Regulations Act recognised unions can also be settled by the ECT.

The appeals of the orders passed by the ECT may only be made on the ground that the tribunal went out of its jurisdiction in the passing of such an order, or on the ground involving a question of law. The high court is the appellate authority for the orders passed by ECT.

  • Industrial Arbitration Court– The IAC, in 1960, was established to resolve the settlement of trade disputes and to resolve matters on employee-employer relations. It is presided over by a President and Deputy President. The President of Singapore, on PM’s advice, appoints the president and the deputy president of the court.

In case the disputes between the employer and the union are not resolved through discussions, the assistance of the Ministry of Manpower is sought. If the parties still fail to resolve their dispute, the IAC steps in. 

The first channel that’s adopted by the registrar is mediation. If the dispute is not resolved amicably, the registrar arranges for the matter to be heard by the court.

  • Intellectual Property Office of Singapore-  The IPOS is entrusted with using its expertise for the growth of Singapore through IP and innovation strategies. The registries of patents, trademarks, plant varieties and registered designs work within the IPOS for processing and granting intellectual property rights in Singapore.  

The registrar and his delegates preside over the mediation and hearing department of the IPOS for granting speedy resolution of disputes regarding the registration of trademarks and patents, plant varieties protection and registered designs. The IPOS also acts as the secretariat of the copyright tribunal and helps in administering the copyright tribunal.

  • Strata Tiles Board- These tribunals were established under the Building Management and Strata Management Act 2004 (BMSMA). The tribunal mediates disputes regarding floor leakages, performance or failure of a duty under the BMSMA, resolutions that are passed by the management corporations, issues related to car parking, and complaints related to modification of the common property. President and deputy president preside over the tribunal and are assisted by a registrar.

Problems with the court system and reform strategies

The courts in Singapore were working sluggishly until 1990. The traditional English laws and the ineffectiveness of the judges to deliver justice timely resulted in a serious backlog of cases. Litigants were not given the right to be heard, the parties and their lawyers controlled the pace of the litigation, which caused some serious delays. The backlog problem was the result of these practices. A shortage of judges was limiting the efforts that were made to reduce the backlog. The subordinate courts were not functioning well because of a lack of proper infrastructure. Courtrooms were insufficient to handle the number of cases that were being filed. To tackle the backlogs, in 1976, the jurisdiction of the subordinate courts was expanded. Despite taking several measures, the backlog of cases was not decreasing. Singapore was emerging as a global commercial hub, with foreign investments pouring in from all over the world; serious reforms were needed for Singapore to become a financial superpower. Several measures were taken that proved ineffective. According to a report from the World Bank, “the reforms were not feasible for the long term.”

To tackle the backlog problem, a new Chief Justice, Yong Pung How, was appointed. Soon after his appointment, he started working on the reforms. The first issue that was dealt with was the lack of manpower in the judiciary. The number of judicial appointments increased exponentially between the years 1990 and 2000. The increase in manpower resulted in the faster disposal of the backlog of cases. However, the increase in manpower was just one plank in a raft of reforms. Reforms were introduced to improve the case management system, and mediation was promoted. Adjournments were denied. The jurisdiction of the subordinate courts was expanded. These reforms were fruitful, as they cleared the backlog of cases in the Supreme Court within 3 years of their implementation. Similar reforms were implemented in the subordinate judiciary, and around 90% of the backlog from the year 1990 was cleared. The reforms proved to be so successful that in the year 2000, Singapore achieved the highest case clearance rate when compared with any other country in the world.


The modern judicial system of Singapore is considered to be one of the most effective systems in the world. The island country is a major hub for dispute resolution. The country has a very rich history, and over several years, Singapore witnessed a substantial evolution in its jurisprudence and its economy. But the judicial system was not always the epitome of effectiveness and reliability. Singapore, being a former British colony, inherited English laws and a court system. In the long run, these systems proved to be inefficient, which led to a major backlog of cases. Several reforms were introduced to tackle the problem that was inherited from the old English laws. These reforms exponentially reduced the backlog and made the judicial system of the country effective. The modern judicial system is well-equipped and has all the resources needed to ensure justice is delivered speedily and effectively. In contrast to a lot of Asian countries, the judicial system of Singapore is reasonable and business-friendly. It provides quick resolution of disputes and ensures that laws are fairly applied, minimising the scope for corruption.



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