Second Reading Speech by Senior Parliamentary Secretary Rahayu Mahzam on the Legal Profession (Amendment) Bill 2023
07 Nov 2023 Posted in Parliamentary speeches and responses
- On behalf of the Minister for Law, I beg to move, “That the Bill be now read a Second time.”
- Sir, this Bill contains amendments to the Legal Profession Act 1966 to:
(a) lift the overall standards of the professional training regime for lawyers, following the work of the Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers (“the Committee”); and
(b) to make other miscellaneous and technical amendments.
The Committee for the Professional Training of Lawyers
- The Committee was set up by the Honourable Chief Justice Sundaresh Menon in August 2016 to conduct a root-and-branch review of the professional training regime for lawyers. This review was aimed at raising the quality and consistency of training standards across the industry.
- The Committee was chaired by Justice Quentin Loh, and comprised 14 other members including representatives from:
(a) the Supreme Court,
(b) the Attorney-General’s Chambers,
(c) the Ministry of Law (“MinLaw”),
(d) the Law Society of Singapore,
(e) the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association, and
(f) various Singapore law practices.
- A Working Group comprising representatives from –
(b) the Singapore Institute of Legal Education (“SILE”),
(c) the Supreme Court, and
(d) the Law Society of Singapore,
was subsequently set up to implement and operationalise the Committee’s recommendations, which my Ministry had accepted in-principle.
- A separate working group was established by the SILE to implement the Committee’s recommendations on Part B and practice training.
(a) This working group comprises representatives from:
- the SILE’s Board,
- Singapore law practices,
- the 3 local law schools,
- the Law Society,
- the Singapore Academy of Law,
- the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association,
- the Attorney-General’s Chambers, and
- In 2019, MinLaw conducted a public consultation on the Working Group’s proposals for implementing the Committee’s recommendations. The respondents comprised a good mix of practitioners, in-house counsel, law students, young lawyers and members of the public. The majority supported the Working Group’s proposals.
- This Bill contains amendments to implement these recommendations by the Committee:
(a) Decouple admission to the Singapore Bar from the completion of practice training contracts;
(b) Lengthen the practice training period from six months to one year;
(c) Confer on practice trainees limited rights to practise after six months of training;
(d) Permit up to three months of the practice training period to be completed at approved in-house legal departments of approved corporations; and
(e) Introduce a moratorium for practice training contract applications.
- I will now cover each of the key amendments in turn.
- The rest of the Committee’s recommendations will be implemented progressively via guidance notes and industry announcements, in consultation with the relevant stakeholders from the Working Group.
Decoupling Admission to the Singapore Bar from the Completion of Practice Training Contracts
- I will start with the amendment in relation to decoupling admission to the Singapore Bar from the completion of practice training contracts.
- The existing framework for admission to the Singapore Bar as an Advocate and Solicitor (“A&S”) requires law graduates to, amongst other requirements, pass Part B of the Singapore Bar Examinations (the “Part B examinations”) and complete a prescribed practice training period.
(a) During the practice training period, the law graduate receives supervised training in relation to the practice of Singapore law, under a formal training arrangement.
(b) This formal training arrangement between a law graduate and a Singapore law practice, is known as a “practice training contract”.
- Clause 6 of the Bill introduces a new category of individuals.
(a) Law graduates who pass the Part B examinations, can now be admitted to the Singapore Bar as a lawyer (non-practitioner) (“lawyer (NP)”) without needing to complete the prescribed practice training period.
(b) A lawyer (NP) will not be able to practise in law firms and similar entities; instead a lawyer (NP) can embark on alternative pathways, such as becoming in-house counsel or academia.
- The prescribed practice training period remains compulsory for a lawyer (NP) who wishes to practise law in a law firm or similar entity. Such a lawyer (NP) may be admitted as an A&S and will have the rights and obligations of one, after completion of the prescribed practice training period.
15. This enhancement to the admission framework recognises that a legal education can lead to different legal career pathways.
- MinLaw remains focused on developing a strong core of practising lawyers to serve Singapore’s society; and to provide high-quality legal services to enhance our business environment.
- However, our reality is one of a fast-changing operating environment and we need legal talent to support all aspects of our economy and society.
(a) Law graduates can join in-house counsel teams, legal tech companies or enter academia.
(b) They can contribute to the legal services sector, and in other sectors which may benefit from legal expertise, in a variety of roles and functions.
(c) For those who do not intend to practise, this change allows them to be admitted to the Singapore Bar earlier, since they do not need to complete practice training.
(d) This also frees up more practice training contracts for those who intend to practise law.
- As highlighted in the Forward SG Report, one of our shared visions is to embrace a wider variety of career pathways. We are committed to recognising that there are diverse pathways that are available for our lawyers to develop to their full potential. Hence, this change will allow law graduates who do not wish to practise, to embark on their chosen career pathways sooner.
- A lawyer (NP)’s rights and obligations will be similar to a non-practising A&S who does not have in force a Practice Certificate (PC).
(a) For example, lawyers (NP) may work as in-house counsel and may provide pro bono (i.e. free) legal advice.
(b) They will also be members of the Singapore Academy of Law and can be members of the Law Society of Singapore.
(c) Lawyers (NP) will also be officers of the court, like A&Ses today, and subject to the disciplinary oversight of the Courts.
- Furthermore, under Clause 16 of the Bill, a lawyer (NP) who is employed by a law practice, but is not a practice trainee and who does not have a provisional PC, may be registered as a regulated non-practitioner under section 36G of the Act.
(a) Such registration will be subject to the prevailing framework for regulated non-practitioners, including being entitled to to be a director, partner or shareholder of a law firm or similar entity.
(b) I will elaborate on provisional PCs later on.
- Similarly, the Bill will also permit non-practising A&Ses to be registered as regulated non-practitioners, subject to the prevailing requirements.
- This acknowledges that an individual who is admitted to the Singapore Bar, can contribute to a law practice even if he or she does not practise.
Lengthening the Practice Training Period
- Moving on, I also wish to highlight that the Committee also recommended lengthening the practice training period, which is currently a minimum of six months, to one year. While this change will be given effect to via upcoming amendments to the subsidiary legislation, I would like to mention this briefly, so that Members have an overall picture of the changes.
- This change is only one example of consistent efforts to holistically lift the standards of the legal industry. My Ministry is also involved in ongoing reviews in other aspects covering areas such as legal education, and ethics and professional standards of lawyers.;
(a) These reviews aim to enhance the quality of the legal workforce and complement the Committee’s recommendations.
(b) In an increasingly complex and competitive operating environment, there is greater demand for legal professionals that provide high-quality advice and solutions to clients with multi-faceted problems.
(c) One key objective is to produce law graduates who will be equipped with the necessary skill sets, and be better prepared to enter into the legal workforce.
- In conjunction with these efforts, the lengthened practice training period will:
(a) Give practice trainees a longer period of direct mentorship to develop a strong foundation for a sustainable and fulfilling career in legal practice;
(b) Better equip practice trainees for entry into private practice through greater exposure to a range of practice areas; and
(c) Allow law practices to make a more holistic assessment of trainees’ performance.
- In other jurisdictions like France, Germany and Hong Kong, there is also emphasis on the practice training to complement formal education where solicitors are required to undergo two years of training.
- The SILE has published a detailed Notice on New Admission Regime on their website. The Notice captures the proposals from the multi-stakeholder working groups. It outlines the new training requirements and options available to law graduates seeking to complete their practice training period.
- MinLaw is aware of industry concerns surrounding the lengthened practice training period, including the additional strain this may place on both future practice trainees and law practices seeking to offer practice training contracts.
- MinLaw is working closely with the SILE and the Law Society on these concerns. Areas that we are looking into include arrangements for leave days and medical leave, and renumeration for practice trainees commensurate with their contributions during their training period.
Providing Practice Trainees the Option to Practise Provisionally Under Supervision
30. Another amendment relates to providing trainees the option to practise provisionally under supervision. Clause 12 introduces a framework for “Provisional Practising Certificates” (a “provisional PC”). A lawyer (NP) who is a practice trainee may apply for a provisional PC after completing at least six months of practice training.
(a) This will replace the existing “part-call” regime, which only permits practice trainees to have restricted rights of audience to appear and plead before the Courts.
(b) The provisional PC provides exposure to a broader variety of experiences that more closely reflect the realities and rigours of private practice.
(c) A practice trainee who has a provisional PC will be able to undertake work that a practising A&S may do (for example, appear and plead in Court, and render legal advice to clients) provided this is done under the supervision of his or her supervising solicitor.
31. This will contribute to building a stronger foundation for young lawyers who are starting their legal careers and can provide a smoother transition to independent practice.
32. Clause 12 also sets out the power of the Attorney-General, the Registrar of the Supreme Court, and the Council of the Law Society of Singapore in respect of the issue of provisional PCs and the imposition of any further conditions thereof. It also sets out when an application for a provisional PC may be refused, and when a provisional PC may be suspended or cancelled.
33. Provision is also made for appeals against the Registrar’s decisions in provisional PC applications, and to introduce measures concerning a lawyer (NP)’s fitness to practise provisionally and when a lawyer (NP) is disqualified from applying for a provisional PC.
34. These are substantively similar to the corresponding provisions in the LPA concerning PCs and A&Ses.
Permitting Up to Three Months of the Practice Training Contract to be Completed at Approved In-house Legal Departments
35. The next amendment in the Bill provides flexibility for practice trainees to complete up to three months of their practice training at approved in-house legal departments of approved non-law practice entities.
(a) This expands the training options for practice trainees and can add to their breadth of practical and commercial experience, so that they are better able to meet the needs of the businesses.
36. To ensure that these practice trainees receive proper supervision and training within the in-house legal department, an approved non-law practice entity must be of a minimum size and handle a reasonable amount of Singapore law-related work.
(a) The SILE, in consultation with the Working Group, is working through the applicable criteria.
(b) These criteria will be prescribed in the subsidiary legislation.
Moratorium for Practice Training Contract Applications
37. A further amendment relates to the moratorium for practice training contract applications. At present, the search for practice training contracts is highly competitive. MinLaw has received feedback that law students feel pressured to start competing with their peers for practice training contracts from as early as their first year in law school.
38. The Committee recommended a moratorium period, before which:
(a) law students cannot apply for practice training contracts; and
(b) law practices cannot offer them.
This would alleviate the law students’ anxieties in the practice training contract application process.
39. Further details on the moratorium’s implementation will be announced in due course.
(a) This includes when the moratorium will be introduced, its duration, the relevant criteria for compliance, and the consequences of any breach.
(b) The Bill amends the Act to provide flexibility to implement these details in the future.
Interim Disciplinary Provisions
40. The next set of amendments relate to interim disciplinary provisions.
41. Clauses 25 provides that lawyers (NP) are officers of the Supreme Court. Just like A&Ses, lawyers (NP) will be subject to the disciplinary proceedings framework in Part 7 of the Act.
42. In this regard, MinLaw is currently conducting a broader review of the Act’s disciplinary proceedings framework as a whole, with a view towards further legislative amendments in the future.
(a) This review takes into account recent developments in the case law, as well as feedback from various stakeholders on the Act’s existing provisions.
(b) In so doing, MinLaw aims to ensure that the law is clear, that disciplinary proceedings against lawyers are conducted expeditiously and fairly, and that the Act continues to engender public trust in the legal profession.
43. This review is complex.
(a) Members who are lawyers will appreciate how the Act’s various discipline-related provisions are inter-connected.
(b) MinLaw will require more time to complete the review, including consulting relevant stakeholders.
44. In the meantime, clauses 26 to 31 of the Bill insert interim provisions for the discipline of lawyers (NP).
(a) These interim provisions are based on today’s existing provisions for the discipline of non-practising A&Ses, practice trainees and “part-called” individuals, with adjustments where appropriate.
(b) The substance of these interim provisions are subject to change, pending the completion of the review.
Applicability of New Admission Framework
45. The amendment at Clause 48 of the Bill contains transitional arrangements to implement the changes.
46. As announced by my Ministry earlier in February this year, the new admission framework will take effect from the 2024 session of the Part B Bar Examinations onwards.
47. Individuals who became qualified persons before 1 November 2023 may apply for admission to the Singapore Bar under the current admission framework, if they meet the current requirements and apply for admission as an A&S before the 2024 session of the Part B Examinations.
48. We recognise, however, that some individuals may become qualified persons between 1 November 2023 and 31 January 2024, and are able to complete six months of practice training before the new admission framework is implemented in 2024.
(a) They will be able to apply for admission as an A&S under the current admission framework if they pass the Part B examinations by a date prescribed in subsidiary legislation.
(b) This prescribed date will be in the second half of 2025.
Miscellaneous and Technical Amendments
49. This Bill also makes miscellaneous and technical amendments to the Act and clarifies certain provisions based on stakeholders’ feedback.
50. I will highlight two such amendments.
51. The first clarifies the Court’s powers in an application to be admitted to the Singapore Bar, after the recent incidents of individuals cheating during the Part B examinations.
52. The Court may, considering the applicant’s conduct, character and other relevant circumstances:
(a) adjourn the application for a specified period;
(b) allow it to be withdrawn; or
(c) make any other appropriate order.
53. The second clarifies that a Court of 3 Supreme Court Judges constituted under the Act may conduct or hear a matter through electronic means, unless otherwise prescribed.
(a) Similar amendments pertaining to the Supreme Court, State Courts, and Family Justice Courts were made via the Courts (Civil and Criminal Justice) Reform Act 2021.
(b) This amendment is clarificatory in nature and does not introduce new powers.
54. Mr Speaker, in conclusion, the amendments that I have mentioned are part of our efforts to lift the overall standards of the professional training regime for lawyers to develop a future-ready legal workforce.
55. Our operating environment has become more complex and competitive. It remains a top priority to empower our law graduates to build themselves a sustainable and fulfilling career, by offering a breadth of opportunities to them in the legal services sector.
Last updated on 07 November 2023