As a Commonwealth nation, Singapore’s legal system has its roots in English law and practice. Founded in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles, the once sleepy island was transformed into a major entrepȏt along the shipping route between Europe and the Far East. With the arrival of the British, English law and customs were adopted.
Since self-governance in 1959 and independence from Malaysia in 1965, Singapore has developed its own autochthonous legal system, establishing legislation and case law that are unique to its social and economic circumstances.
Despite forging its own path suited to Singapore’s requirements, there is one inherited British legal foundation that remains intact, albeit just: common law. Singapore inherited the English common law traditions, especially in contract, tort and restitution, and thus the stability, certainty and acceptance that such law enjoys among other Commonwealth nations. While Singapore courts still refer to case law emerging from England, it has made significant departures in the past 30 years, especially in statute-based areas such as company law, criminal law and evidence, in favour of local jurisprudence.
The Singapore legal structure comprises the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary. The Legislature is made up of the Parliament and an elected president. The Parliament is tasked with enacting laws of the land. Singapore has a unique Parliamentary composition. Besides elected Members of Parliament (MPs), non-elected MPs also sit in Parliament but their voting rights are restricted to matters that do not concern the Constitution, finance bills and votes of no-confidence in the Government.
The Executive is helmed by the President and comprises the Cabinet which is responsible for the general direction of the Government and accountable to Parliament. Cabinet ministers are drawn from MPs and as such there is no complete separation of powers between the Legislature and the Executive.
Singapore has a comprehensive judicial system. The State Courts (previously known as Subordinate Courts) form the first tier in the judicial hierarchy to administer justice amongst the people. It comprises the District Courts, Magistrates' Courts, specialised courts – Family Court, Juvenile Court, Coroner's Court – Small Claims Tribunals and the Court Mediation Centre. The District Courts, Magistrates’ Courts and Small Claims Tribunals can hear civil matters where disputed amounts do not exceed $250,000, $60,000 and $10,000 respectively.
The second tier is the Supreme Court, made up of the High Court and Court of Appeal, the latter being the highest court in the land. Both courts hear criminal cases and civil claims exceeding $250,000. The Chief Justice, Judges of Appeal, Judges and Judicial Commissioners are appointed by the President on the advice of the Prime Minister.
While the judicial system has been efficient in dispensing justice, the Government has found it necessary and expedient to complement the courts with other modes of alternative dispute resolution (ADR), namely arbitration and mediation. Having established itself as a major international commercial centre, Singapore has made giant leaps to cater to the demands of business for cheaper, quicker and, at times, confidential dispute resolution. It has positioned itself as a competitive arbitration centre to match that of London and Hong Kong. Major law firms in Singapore now offer arbitration services, and institutions with state-of-the-art hearing facilities are in place to meet the arbitration needs of disputants.
For smaller claims, mediation has been promoted as an alternative method of resolving disputes. The State Courts via their Primary Dispute Resolution Centre and the Singapore Mediation Centre are the two main mediation avenues. The rest are initiatives spearheaded by the Government or industry namely Maintenance of Parents Tribunal, Community Mediation Centre and Consumers’ Association of Singapore.
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